A Presidential Campaign Speech at CPAC

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It is no secret that Mitt Romney has presidential ambitions. Since his loss to John McCain in the 2008 Republican primary, the former governor has remained focused on positioning himself for another run. Like many of his potential 2012 rivals, he has written a book, raised money through a political action committee, weighed in on a few select races and traveled to choice political states. He went one step further today at CPAC, unveiling a meticulously crafted campaign speech with a single target: President Obama.

In his 30-minute address to the conference, Romney mentioned Obama more than 20 times, hammering him on everything from jobs to national security. His central thesis was that the president “fails to understand America;” a theme Ben Smith notes Mark Penn pushed Hillary Clinton to exploit in 2008. Notably absent was any reference to this year’s midterm contests, making no attempt to disguise his goals for the speech. It was an unabashed dry run of a 2012 stump speech executed in a controlled environment.

The setting was well suited for playing presidential politics. Before a friendly crowd, with national media present and Republican powerbrokers on hand, the former governor was able to maximize exposure while minimizing risk.  Even the choice of newly minted Senator Scott Brown to introduce him served to tie Romney to a recent electoral success and the embodiment of a resurgent GOP.

He did take a few unconventional steps in the address. Explicitly heralding Bush 43 has been taboo territory for most Republicans in recent years, but Romney nonetheless sought to draw comparisons between the last administration and the current one, saying, “I am convinced that history will judge President Bush far more kindly.”

In addition to defending the Bush legacy, Romney ceded something that has been on few Republican lips of late: He said the economy is likely to make substantial gains during the remainder of Obama’s first term. “Will the economy and unemployment recover? Of course,” he said, quickly pivoting to the notion that “this president will not deserve the credit he will undoubtedly claim.” Adjusting his rhetoric for a likely far-off recovery illustrates the extent to which Romney is taking the long view.

While his potential rivals have jostled for the spotlight, hosting shows on the Fox News Channel or serving out terms in public office, Mitt Romney has quietly dedicated a lot of time and energy to putting together his next run at the White House. And it shows.