OXON HILL, Md. Mitt Romney - the same presidential nominee who Rick Santorum "the worst Republican in the country" to face off against President Obama on the issue of health care, and who at least one tea party group the day after his Nov. 6 election loss "a weak moderate candidate, hand-picked by the Beltway elites and country-club establishment wing of the Republican Party" - spoke today at the most who's-who conservative gathering in the country.
Romney's speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Hotel and Conference Center on Maryland's National Harbor conceded "mistakes" made in his unsuccessful bid for the White House, and was met with courteous applause.
His involvement in general, though, drew from convention-goers, speakers and VIPs a stark dichotomy, torn between wanting to embrace the "big tent" ideology of the Republican Party, and Texas Gov. Rick Perry's assessment at the conference Thursday that Romney lost last fall because he wasn't a true conservative.
"I hope to God he's not the future" of the conservative movement, Andy Brown, from White Bear Lake, Minn., said of Romney. Brown said the former Massachusetts governor "didn't have as much of a spine as I'd like," and cited as his picks for the 2012 nomination two tea party favorites: former Rep. Allen West and Rep. Michele Bachmann.
Still, Brown said, Romney deserved his invitation: "He's still one of us," he said. "He may not have and share the same values as the majority of us, but he was working towards the same goal as us."
Emory University graduate student David Giffin said "yes and no" to whether Romney should have been featured in a lineup that included rising stars like Sens. Marco Rubio and Rand Paul, but excluded New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
"Many have argued that what happened [with Romney's loss in November] was because he didn't quite go for broke on some of the principles that we value at the conference," Giffin said. "And other people, I think, make a good case that he should be brought back, because he still is a part of the club, whether or not he lost."
Even Santorum, who in the GOP primary offered social conservatives an alternative to the historically moderate Romney, and was the last real threat standing between him and the nomination, told CBS News that Romney "should have been invited here - I'm glad he was."
"There are different elements to the conservative movement, and it's important to hear from him, and welcome all those to compete in the arena of ideas," said Santorum, who spoke today ahead of Romney.
Foster Friess, one of the biggest donors to Santorum's campaign, agreed: "In the past election I think many conservatives... weren't quit sure where he stood," Friess told CBS News. "But now that he's not running for president, he can be very candid about where he stands. And I believe you're gonna find that maybe not on every issue we like, but... he loves his family, he loves his God and he loves his country. What more could you ask?"
Jacqueline Quander, a Tufts University student from San Francisco who identifies as an independent, said while it may not be "comfortable" for Romney to attend CPAC following such a wealth of different reactions to his campaign performance, he "definitely belongs here." His moderation, she said, still "appeals to a lot of people" in the party.
University of Texas, San Antonio student Ian Jacobson reasoned that Romney served as an important page in the GOP's history.
"If you're gonna move forward, you have to know where you came from, and so it's important to learn from the past, and take those lessons moving forward," he said. "So I feel like anybody who's been involved in the movement in the past and is willing to continue to work with the movement should be included in that movement."
That "absolutely," Jacobson said, "includes Mitt Romney."