By Dan Balz
Sunday, February 21, 2010; A02
For most of the past year, Mitt Romney has been off the stage. While Sarah Palin has commanded headlines, while other Republicans have jumped into intraparty controversies over purity and as GOP leaders have vied with one another to bash President Obama the loudest, Romney stayed largely out of the fray.
That is about to change. The former Massachusetts governor has spent much of the past year working on a book called "No Apology" that will be published next month. He is now preparing to reemerge, with an eye on a possible 2012 presidential campaign. The question is what he learned from his failed 2008 campaign.
He marked the beginning of his reemergence with an appearance at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which wrapped up three days of rhetoric Saturday. There he delivered a full-throated attack on Obama's policies, and he offered praise for former president George W. Bush and former vice president Dick Cheney.
For that he drew an enthusiastic response from an audience that has become emblematic of the party's most conservative wing. It didn't hurt that he was introduced by the newest darling of Republicans, Sen. Scott Brown (Mass.), whose victory in the special election for the seat once held by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) dramatically changed the political calculus in Washington and around the country.
Brown's election provided Romney with one of his best laugh lines. "For that victory," he said, "that stopped Obama-care and turned back the Reid-Pelosi liberal tide, we have something to say that you'd never think you'd hear at CPAC, 'Thank you, Massachusetts!' "
Romney wore his Massachusetts experience uncomfortably in the last presidential campaign. To compete for the nomination, he was forced to change some of the positions he had taken in two statewide campaigns in the Bay State-- one unsuccessful, one successful. He moved sharply to the right on abortion and gay rights and ran away from the health-care overhaul that he signed as governor and that bears resemblance to many of the ideas Democrats have pushed over the past year.
To win over social conservatives, he overcompensated. His 2007 speech at CPAC was replete with references to their issues. "I have stood in the center of the battlefield on every major social issue," he said that year. On Thursday, his speech contained no references to abortion, same-sex marriage or some of the other issues that became touchstones in his effort to win the hearts and minds of skeptical conservatives.
Romney has not abandoned any of those 2008 positions, and one speech is hardly representative of the body of his thinking or the themes he will strike to win support of conservatives, if he chooses to run again in 2012. But as a small indicator, the speech Thursday at least hinted that Romney and his advisers concluded that he had emphasized those issues far too much, for too little gain.
In his first campaign, Romney struggled to present himself in an authentic way. Many conservatives doubted his conversion. Moderates were disappointed that he seemed to have put on a new suit of clothes. His rivals ridiculed him as a flip-flopper. The media made Romney's shifting positions central to their coverage of his candidacy.
Most damaging was that Romney robbed himself of what many advisers and admirers had long thought was his most attractive attribute: that the former business executive knew how to fix problems, particularly with the economy. If he runs in 2012, it likely will be as a conservative Mr. Fix-It, rather than a convert to the cultural wars.
As much as Romney labored with his presentation, his campaign became an often undisciplined battleground of its own. Romney hired many top party consultants but was unable to find a way to get the most out of them. His campaign team was at times paralyzed -- and demoralized -- by the fact that no one could resolve or end constant warring among his media consultants.
Romney has taken steps to fix that problem. Last week he named Matt Rhoades as the new executive director of his political action committee. Rhoades ran Romney's communications operation in 2008 and before that was research director and deputy communications director at the Republican National Committee.
His appointment was seen by Romney loyalists as a sign that the former governor wants a well-executed plan for using his time and money in behalf of Republican candidates this fall, with a particular eye on preparing for another presidential campaign. Rhoades, by his own words, will not tolerate chaos in the Romney organization.
Better than most around Romney, Rhoades understands and can manage the two wings of Romney's political operation -- his Boston-based team of longtime advisers and the high-powered Washington consultants who came aboard for the 2008 campaign. "Rhoades commands the respect of everyone who is counted as part of the Romney team, and that matters a lot to the governor," said Kevin Madden, who was Romney's 2008 campaign press secretary.
Another Romney adviser from 2008 said of Rhoades's arrival, "I think it means the ramp-up will be quick and that 2010 will be a professional effort from day one -- a long way from the Commonwealth PAC," Romney's former political action committee.
It was clear from his CPAC performance that in terms of polish, he will start the 2012 cycle in better shape than the last campaign and ahead of many first-timers in the contest for the Republican nomination. Whether he has found his true voice will be answered in the months ahead.