Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney spoke at CPAC on Friday, and said the GOP must stay optimistic about the party’s future. (The Washington Post)

Mitt Romney made a wistful but triumphant return to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, receiving standing ovations from the audience as he expressed optimism about the Republican Party’s future and vowed to work with conservatives to achieve “larger victories” after failing to win last year’s presidential election.

“Of course I left the race disappointed that I didn’t win, but I also left honored and humbled to have represented the values we believe in,” the 2012 GOP presidential nominee said in a 16-minute speech. “We’ve lost races before in the past, but those setbacks prepared us for larger victories.”

Romney added: “It’s up to us to make sure that we learn from our mistakes and my mistakes and that we take advantage of that learning to make sure that we take back the nation, take back the White House, get the Senate, and put in place conservative principles.”

He said it was “fashionable in some circles to be pessimistic about America, about conservatism, about the Republican Party.” But he added: “I utterly reject pessimism. We may not have carried on November 7th, but we have not lost the country we love, and we have not lost our way.

“Like you, I believe that a conservative vision can attract a majority of Americans,” the former Massachusetts governor said. While he is “probably not in the best position to chart the course” for the next Republican presidential campaign, Romney said, he nevertheless offered advice: “I would urge us all to learn lessons from our greatest success stories: 30 Republican governors across the country. . . . We need the leadership and the ideas and the vision of these governors.”

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) addressed CPAC on Friday about his budget plan and Washington’s spending problem. (The Washington Post)

He called on Republicans especially to heed the GOP leaders in the “blue and purple states,” naming Robert F. McDonnell of Virginia, John Kasich of Ohio, Scott Walker of Wisconsin, Susana Martinez of New Mexico, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Brian Sandoval of Nevada. “These are the people we’ve got to listen to and make sure their message is heard loud and clear across the country.”

Romney also gave a shout-out to his 2012 running mate, hailing “the clear and convincing voice of my friend Paul Ryan.”

Earlier Friday, Ryan (R-Wis.) delivered a wonky speech to the conference, a week after releasing the latest version of his House Republican budget. Ryan argued that the government’s record debt is a sign that it is doing too much. But he also sought to allay concerns that Republicans will cut indiscriminately.

“We don’t see the debt as an excuse to cut with abandon, to shirk our obligations,” Ryan said. “We see it as an opportunity to reform government, to make it cleaner and more effective. That’s what conservatives stand for.”

Mogul Donald Trump opened the second day of the conference with a speech that combined dire predictions about the GOP’s future with boasts of his own career.

“The Republican Party is in serious trouble,” Trump said. “When you spend $400 million on a campaign and you lose, you know there’s a problem.”

He warned the party that it could not win by changing Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security “for the worse.” He declared that if 11 million undocumented immigrants are given legal status, “every one of those 11 million people will be voting Democratic; that’s just the way it works.” Immigration reform, he suggested, might be a suicide mission. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s description of the GOP as the “stupid party” would come back to haunt Republicans, Trump said.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said the field of potential Democratic candidates for the 2016 presidential race looks like “a rerun of the ‘Golden Girls.’ ”

Referring to the 1980s sitcom, he told the conference: “Don’t tell me Democrats are the party of the future when their presidential ticket for 2016 is shaping up to look like a rerun of the ‘Golden Girls.’ ”

He noted that the GOP has young rising stars such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and Ryan. “And the other guys, they got Hillary and Joe Biden,” McConnell said, referring to Hillary Clinton, 65, and Vice President Biden, 70.

As the conference opened Thursday in a convention center at the National Harbor complex in Prince George’s County, the future of the Republican Party took some shots at its recent past. Two top potential 2016 White House hopefuls made a conspicuous effort to distance themselves from the previous two GOP presidential nominees.

Paul and Rubio offered sharp, and only slightly veiled, critiques of Romney and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the two most recent GOP standard-bearers. “The GOP of old has grown stale and moss-covered,” Paul said. “I don’t think we need to name any names here, do we?”

Although Paul did not mention McCain by name, the reference was clear after McCain last week labeled Paul and other members of the new generation of conservative Republicans “wacko birds.”

Speaking to the same crowd earlier Thursday, Rubio sought to cast himself as the anti-Romney, attacking some of Romney’s most controversial statements from the 2012 presidential campaign. In one of them, a closed-door speech at a Florida fundraiser that was surreptitiously recorded on video, Romney dismissed his chances with 47 percent of American voters, who he said were overly dependent on government and considered themselves victims.

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