SAN DIEGO — Mitt Romney laid down a marker for a prospective presidential campaign in 2016, telling a Republican audience here Friday night that the party can win the White House with a conservative message that stresses security and safety for the American people, opportunity for all regardless of background and a plan to lift people out of poverty.
In his first public appearance since his surprise announcement that he will seriously consider a third campaign for the White House, Romney offered an economic message that represented a dramatic departure from the themes he sounded in losing the 2012 campaign to President Obama.
“Under President Obama, the rich have gotten richer, income inequality has gotten worse and there are more people in poverty than ever before,” Romney said. “Under this president, his policies have not worked. Their liberal policies are good every four years for a campaign, but they don’t get the job done.”
In his last campaign, Romney was hampered by an image, pushed by the Democrats, that he was a wealthy business executive who was out of touch with ordinary Americans. On Friday, he seemed determined to send a signal that he would try to deal with that problem from the start, should he run.
“It’s a tragedy -- a human tragedy – that the middle class in this country by and large doesn’t believe the future won’t be better than the past or their kids will have a brighter future of their own,” Romney said. He added, “People want to see rising wages and they deserve them.”
As with others in his party, he raised the issue of social mobility and the difficulty of those at the bottom from rising into the middle class. He cited former president Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty half a century ago. Johnson’s intentions were good, he said, but his policies had not worked. He argued that Republicans must persuade voters that conservative policies can “end the scourge of poverty” in America.
Beyond a focus aimed more at struggling middle-class families and those in poverty, Romney’s brief remarks Friday included comments about the work he had done as a lay pastor in the Mormon Church, a topic he rarely spoke about in his past campaigns. He invoked his wife Ann, who stood on the stage with him.
“She knows my heart in a way that few people do,” he said. “She’s seen me not just as a business guy and a political guy, but for over 10 years as you know I served as a pastor for a congregation and for groups of congregations... She’s seen me work with folks that are looking for better work and jobs and providing care for the sick and the elderly. She knows where my heart is.”
Romney joked also that the question he’s been asked most frequently in recent days is what Ann thinks about another campaign. “She believes that people get better with experience,” he joked. “Heaven knows I have experience running for president.”
The one element of Romney’s substantive remarks that did not mark a departure from his last campaign was criticism of Obama on foreign policy. Citing threats across the globe to U.S. security, Romney said, “The results of the Hillary Clinton-Barack Obama foreign policy have been devastating, and you know that. Terrorism is not on the run.”
Romney’s appearance came aboard the USS Midway, an aircraft carrier museum docked in downtown San Diego, where the Republican National Committee held a reception to conclude its winter meeting here. His appearance drew a throng of reporters, with about two dozen cameras awaiting him and his wife when they arrived shortly before 7 p.m. PT.
Before taking the stage, Romney mingled with RNC members and reminisced about happy times on the campaign trail in 2012. When he saw some friends from Puerto Rico, he recalled the thunderous rally he attended in San Juan during the territory’s primary campaign.
“I don’t think anybody thought we’d be getting any delegates in Puerto Rico, but we got ‘em all, thanks to you,” Romney said.
Ann chimed in, “That was the most extraordinary night.”
Ann told a few reporters she was excited to be back on the campaign trail, but said this was a “time to think.” Asked whether her husband would run again, she said, “We don’t know yet.”
As the Romneys walked to their SUV to leave the aircraft carrier, a few fans asked Mitt to autograph a few baseballs.
"Look at this," he said with a smile and a chuckle. "Isn't that nice to get the chance to sign a baseball again?"
He signed a few, but then told them, "One more. I don't want to flood the market with these -- might drop the price below 50 cents again."
His last words as he got into the waiting SUV were: “I’m thinking – thinking about it. Giving it consideration.”
Romney’s remarks came at the end of a tumultuous week in the Republican presidential race — and a roller-coaster ride for the 2012 nominee. His declaration that he will seriously consider running again generated both surprise and excitement within GOP circles. The announcement foreshadowed a potentially dramatic clash between the former Massachusetts governor and former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
Romney and his inner circle worked the phones in an effort to gauge interest and potential support for a third campaign, and to begin to reassemble the team that carried him to the nomination and into the general election.
But within days, another reality set in, which was resistance to his possible candidacy. A few one-time Romney supporters expressed public skepticism while others privately said they hoped he would not go forward.
There was criticism as well about the way the rollout was handled, which appeared to have been little planned and caught even some close to Romney by surprise. There was criticism as well about the rationale that some of those around Romney were using to justify a new campaign.
Many Republicans, however fond they are of Romney personally, are unforgiving about the campaign he ran, arguing that Obama was highly vulnerable and that a more skilled campaign and candidate would have won.
Romney quickly came under pressure to explain not only the substance behind his belief that he should be the 2016 nominee but also to show that a new campaign would be run differently, with new faces and an expanded operation.