RESTON, Va. — “I know it seems like government doesn’t like you,” Mitt Romney told a group of about 900 business people Friday morning in a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Hotel here. “I love you.”
The feeling appeared to be mutual.
Hours before he was set to deliver a high-stakes address at the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, Romney brought his campaign to friendly turf Friday morning, delivering an upbeat speech to members of the Northern Virginia Technology Council.
Attendees at the breakfast event greeted the GOP front-runner with several standing ovations and warm applause, and several afterward hailed Romney’s remarks as “powerful,” “optimistic” and largely absent the bitter partisanship that has marked the White House race thus far.
Indeed, Romney appeared in his element at the event, discussing the intricacies of tax policy and tossing around wonky terms such as “glass chromatograph.”
He did not mention any of his GOP rivals by name and only made a passing criticism of the Obama administration for its handling of the Solyndra debacle — a markedly different tone from the one Romney is likely to strike in his address at CPAC, an annual summit of national conservative activists where red meat is the name of the game.
Introducing Romney at the event were Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) — who has endorsed Romney but who barely mentioned him in his opening remarks — and Consumer Electronics Association President and CEO Gary Shapiro, who praised Romney as “amazingly frugal” and assured the crowd, “No one can claim that Mitt Romney’s parents spoiled him.”
Romney spoke for about half an hour and took a half-dozen questions from the crowd, mostly friendly ones from questioners seeking further details about his economic proposals.
He focused his remarks largely on laying out his vision for the economy, arguing that America has a history of being exceptional when it comes to innovation. He advocated for “a tax structure that encourages risk-taking” and contrasted America’s emphasis on “free enterprise and personal freedom” with three competing, authoritarian models — what he described as the Chinese, Russian and “jihadist” models.
Making no mention of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) or former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) by name, Romney played up his business experience and took aim at those “who have never fallen in love with the American experience that I describe” of having worked in the private sector.
Even Romney’s criticism of Obama was more muted than his typical campaign-trail attacks. He honed in on the administration’s handling of Solyndra in particular, but used the example mainly to illustrate that “government action in an economy stifles innovation when it chooses winners.”
“This makes me crazy, watching government,” he said to knowing chuckles from some of those in the ballroom.
Romney also defended his tenure as Massachusetts governor, pointing to his role in reforming the Bay State’s policy of placing homeless people in hotels when shelters had become full. A state that had once paid for an average of 599 hotel rooms per night for the homeless had gone to paying for zero during his governorship, he told the crowd.
“I said, ‘From now on, you tell all the shelters that when someone comes to the door ... you tell them, come on in, we will make room, and the person who’s been there the longest, they get to go to the hotel,’” Romney said.
One of the reasons Romney’s speech appeared to resonate so well with the business leaders on Friday was that he was speaking their language, interviews with several attendees afterward suggested.
Deborah Wince-Smith, president and CEO of the Washington-based Council on Competitiveness, said that she remains neutral in the presidential race but that she found Romney’s speech “very powerful,” particularly his depiction of where the Obama administration went wrong on Solyndra.
“The points he made about Solyndra — that was a very sophisticated thing he said,” Wince-Smith said. “When he said that, it crystallized for me. It wasn’t just that the government was picking that company. When they gave that grant, for that much money, it basically destroyed the rest of the venture capital going into any other competing technologies. And that in itself hurt the solar industry. He was completely right when he said that.”
Lawrence Parnell, associate professor and director of the strategic public relations program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, was also among those attending Friday’s event. While not himself a member of the tech community, Parnell said that he could see why Romney would choose to address the business gathering.
“I think he was in his element here — talking to a technology group about innovation and business leadership, so this was going to be a very welcoming audience, there’s no question about it. ... So, I think in that regard, he accomplished his goals here,” Parnell said. “He was among friends.”