Mitt Romney will address a yearly gathering of Republican activists in Washington, D.C., on a much different footing than he did in 2008, when he announced to attendees of the Conservative Political Action Conference that he was ending his presidential campaign.
Romney, the darling of conservatives who had looked to the former Massachusetts governor to halt Sen. John McCain's march to the nomination, was fresh off a string of Super Tuesday losses in the last presidential election cycle.
"I entered this race because I love America. And because I love America, in this time of war, I feel I have to now stand aside for our party and for our country," Romney told the conference, ending his campaign over the vocal protests of some attendees.
Four years later -- almost to the day -- Romney will address CPAC from a much different position in the GOP field.
This time, Romney will play McCain's role: the presumptive favorite for the nomination with establishment backing, who is trying to win over the GOP's conservatives, many of whom now object to the warts on his record.
What changed in the intervening four years is partly his doing, and partly out of his control.
No doubt the biggest shift has been the national debate on health care, and conservatives strong distaste for the national health care reform law implemented by President Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress.
That law was based on one Romney signed into law as governor of Massachusetts. Once seen as an asset for his campaign, the Republican base has turned against the Bay State law. As if to make matters worse, Romney chose to embrace his plan -- and its requirement that all individuals purchase insurance -- in a key May 2011 speech. Romney has continued to defend the Massachusetts law as one that was a good solution for the state he governed at the time but unacceptable for the national plan.
Another key change has been the advent of the Tea Party, and an overarching demand by conservatives that the Republican nominee be more ideologically pure. Crossover appeal and establishment support, two central elements of Romney's appeal this cycle, are at a lower premium for primary voters than at any other point in recent political history.
There's no better evidence of the change in the environment than the nominating contests held so far, in which Romney has at times struggled to win over the core conservative Republicans who had fueled his candidacy in 2008. He won the Minnesota caucuses in 2008 in part due to their support; without them, he fell to third place when Minnesotans caucused this past Tuesday.
Those shifts in the political environment suggest that Romney, the winner of the conference's annual straw poll from 2007-09, won’t likely receive the warm welcome he did in his 2008 speech.
He'll bring in a slightly different message this time, though. Romney's 2008 address focused on themes of social conservatism, and especially national security.
Romney's speech this time is likely to focus on the economy, in part a reflection of the tough economic climate and a core theme of the former governor's campaign. But in reaction to a recent threat from his primary foes, Romney's also more likely to articulate an anti-Washington message, stressing his time in the private sector and outside of D.C. -- in contrast to the remaining three other presidential contenders.
This year’s gathering also comes under more uncertain political terrain; just a handful of states have held their primaries or caucuses ahead of this year's edition of CPAC. By comparison, 27 states had held their nominating contests before CPAC 2008, a turning point in that campaign from which McCain carried momentum to win the nomination.
And also, two of the three surviving challengers to Romney -- former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- are set to speak.
In the case of Santorum, he'll be riding high following a trio of major upsets in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri this week. He may be the heir to the hero's welcome Romney received in 2008. But unlike that year, Santorum won't be using the speech to exit from the campaign. He'll be using it as a springboard to primaries later this month, and Super Tuesday a week afterward.
Gingrich has also launched broadsides against Romney from the right flank, giving the ex-speaker a major platform to voice those criticisms when he speaks on Friday. (Gingrich is the last of the three Republican candidates to speak on Friday. Paul is not on the agenda, though his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, is slated to address the conference.)