Mitt Romney’s CPAC speech (you can read it here) was a bit of a surprise.

The audience was much more enthusiastic and warm than you might imagine based on the emerging narrative that the GOP is unenthusiastic about him. (He does have over a million votes in the primaries, by the way.) He received multiple standing ovations (not everyone wa standing for every ovation, but many were). And he got a few laughs and dished out some red meat. (“It’s been a great conference. For that I suppose we should acknowledge President Obama, the conservative movement’s top recruiter. Turns out, he really is a great community organizer. Although, I don’t think we were the community he had in mind.”)

Romney did two critical things in the speech: He told us why he is a conservative and some of what he wants to do as president. Some of the biography was new to voters and to the media:

My mother’s father – my grandfather – came to America from England. As a teenager, he was alone in a new country, but he risked it all for a chance at religious liberty and economic opportunity.

You’ve probably heard how proud I am of my father. He was born to American parents living in Mexico. When he was five, they moved back to the United States. His dad was a builder who went bust more than once. My Dad grew up poor and never had a chance to finish his college degree. But he believed in a country where the circumstances of one’s birth were not a barrier to achievement. And with hard work, he became the head of a car company and the Governor of the great state of Michigan.

The values that allowed my parents to achieve their dreams are the same values they instilled in my siblings and me. Those aren’t values I just talk about; they are values that I live every day. My 42-year marriage to my wife, Ann; the life we’ve built with our five sons; and the faith that sustains us – these conservative constants have shaped my life.

In business, if you’re not fiscally conservative, you’re bankrupt. I spent 25 years balancing budgets, eliminating waste, and keeping as far away from government as was humanly possible. I did things conservatism is designed for – I started new businesses and turned around broken ones. And I am not ashamed to say that I was very successful at it.

I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism.

That’s the most genuine and believable explanation to date of how he came to conservatism. And it also explains why he doesn’t quite “speak conservative.” His experience in life, not political organizing or conservative theorists, gave him a conservative perspective on life and the country. He’s not going to send all the dog whistles, but he argued he shares their views.

He also set up a stark contrast, implicitly rejecting Rick Santorum’ idea that there would be no such contrast if Romney were the nominee, between him and Obama. The clearest rendition of it was this: “Politicians are routinely elected on promises to change Washington, but when they come here, they become creatures of Washington. They begin to see government as the answer to every challenge and the solution for every problem. At every turn, they try to substitute the heavy hand of the federal government for free citizens and free enterprise. They think government knows better – and can do better – than a free people exercising their free will. And this President is the worst offender. Barack Obama is the poster child for the arrogance of government.”

For the first time Romney also forcefully defended his record as governor of Massachusetts:

I had the unique experience of defending our conservative principles in the most liberal state in our union.

When I took office, I was facing a $3 billion budget deficit and an economy in a tailspin.

Even with a legislature that was 85% Democrat, I cut taxes 19 times and balanced the budget all four years. I cast over 800 vetoes and cut entire programs. I erased a $3 billion budget shortfall and left office with a $2 billion rainy day fund. If there was a program, an agency, or a department that needed cutting, we cut it. In fact, a commentator once said that I didn’t just go after the sacred cows, I went after the whole herd. And I can’t wait to get my hands on Washington.

During my tenure, our conservative values also came under attack. Less than a year after I took office, the state’s supreme court inexplicably found a right to same-sex marriage in our constitution. I pushed for a stay of the decision, fought for a marriage amendment to our constitution, and successfully prohibited out-of-state couples from coming to our state to get married and then go home. On my watch, we fought hard and prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage. When I am President, I will preserve the Defense of Marriage Act and I will fight for a federal amendment defining marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman.

During my time in office, I stood up to those who wanted to call into question the very definition of life. I vetoed a bill that would have opened the door to cloning and embryo farming. I vetoed a bill that would have allowed young girls to gain access to abortion-inducing drugs. I fought for abstinence education in our public schools. And I defended the Catholic Church’s right to serve their community in ways that were consistent with their conscience through adoption programs that placed children in a home with a mom and a dad.

And then most important he answered critics who say he’s only running a negative campaign. He listed some specifics:

I will not just slow the growth of government, I will cut it. I will not just freeze government’s share of the total economy, I will reduce it. And, without raising taxes or sacrificing America’s military superiority, I will finally balance the budget.

And that will start with the easiest cut of all – I will eliminate Obamacare.

I will dramatically reduce the size of the federal workforce. And, for the first time ever, we will tie the compensation and benefits of federal workers to those in the private sector. The principle here is simple: public servants should not get a better deal than the citizens they serve.

But cutting spending and bureaucracy alone won’t be enough. In their current form, Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable. And we cannot afford to avoid our entitlement challenges any longer.

I am the only candidate for President who has offered a sweeping, specific plan to save Social Security and reform Medicare. There are those who say you can’t talk straight to the American people on these key issues and still win an election. I say we can, we must, and I will!

These are sensible and critical reforms. Under my plan, no one at or near the retirement age will see any changes. And tax hikes are off the table.

We will slowly and gradually raise the retirement age for Social Security – and, we will slow the growth in benefits for our nation’s higher-income retirees.

When it comes to Medicare, tomorrow’s seniors should have the freedom to choose between traditional Medicare and a range of private plans. If these future seniors choose a more expensive plan, they would bear the additional cost.

And he tried to assure social conservatives: “On day one, I will reinstate the Mexico City policy. I will cut off funding for the United Nations Population Fund, which supports China’s barbaric One Child Policy. I will ensure that organizations like Planned Parenthood get no federal support. And I will reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life.”

Had Romney delivered this speech months ago he might have saved himself some grief. And one speech isn’t going to calm the base. But it was a start. He showed he’s heard the concerns. It showed he knows he needs to comfort conservatives. It showed he has a conservative agenda. Now he’s got to do it again and again and add some detail to those policy plans. And if he shows the same positive disposition and outlook as he did today he may shed his image as a slash-and-burn candidate, recasting Santorum as the sharp-elbowed, take-your-medicine pol.