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by Jackie Kucinich and Catalina Camia, USA TODAY
Mitt Romney returned to the stage where he once proclaimed himself "severely conservative" to thank thousands of activists for supporting his unsuccessful White House bid.
In remarks Friday to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Romney touted the problem-solving done by GOP governors such as Nikki Haley of South Carolina and expressed his optimism for the future of the conservative movement.
"It's fashionable in some circles to be pessimistic about America, about conservative solutions, about the Republican Party," he said. "I utterly reject pessimism. We may have lost Nov. 7, but we have not lost the country we love and we have not lost our way."
The event known as CPAC often shines the spotlight on the up-and-comers of the Republican Party and is a critical proving ground for presidential hopefuls. More than a dozen potential 2016 presidential candidates - including Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, Rep. Paul Ryan and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal - are all on this year's program and represent a new generation of Republican leaders.
The emergence of the GOP's new guard is part of what makes the speech by Romney, who turned 66 years old this week, interesting. The other is that during the former Massachusetts governor's two unsuccessful presidential campaigns, he was viewed warily by conservatives for his changing views on issues such as abortion.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose own presidential bid fizzled last year, got in a jab at his 2012 Republican rival during his CPAC remarks Thursday as he criticized the news media for suggesting the losing GOP presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012 represented a defeat for conservatism.
"That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates," said Perry, who is considering another White House bid in 2016.
Rubio and Paul both called for a new message from their party during their CPAC speeches - one that would attract younger and more diverse voters to the GOP fold. Rubio, who was considered as a possible Romney running mate, even implicitly criticized Romney's dismissal of 47% of the electorate when he said the nation doesn't have "too many people who want too much from government."
In a wide-ranging Fox News interview last week, Romney acknowledged he lacks "credibility" to give advice to Republicans because he lost the 2012 election, but he said he still wants to try to help expand the GOP tent.
(Contributing: Martha T. Moore)
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