Republican Mitt Romney apologized for losing the presidential election as he returned to the national stage on Friday, promising to work in a diminished role alongside conservative activists to help strengthen the GOP.
"Each of us in our own way will have to step up and meet our responsibility," Romney told a crowded ballroom at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a three-day summit for activists in suburban Washington.
"I am sorry that I will not be your president," Romney said, taking the stage for the first time since last fall's election loss. "But I will be your co-worker, and I will work shoulder-to-shoulder alongside you."
Romney's conservative credentials were sometimes questioned during his presidential campaign, but he was greeted with a roaring ovation and interrupted by applause several times during his brief remarks. Advisers said his appearance was designed to thank conservatives for backing his candidacy.
Romney won the conference's straw poll one year ago, when he described himself as "severely conservative."
He did not repeat that phrase on Friday, but he did borrow heavily from his campaign trail speech. Romney referred to the same furniture upholsterer and truck driver he cited almost daily as he crisscrossed the country last year.
Romney is not expected to play a leading role in the future of the Republican Party, but he said, "It's up to us to make sure that we learn from our mistakes, and my mistakes."
He encouraged conservatives to study the successes of the nation's 30 Republican governors and praised the "clear and convincing voice" of his former running mate, Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, who spoke in the same ballroom earlier in the day.
"Of course, I left the race disappointed that I didn't win," Romney said. "But I also left honored and humbled to have represented the values we believe in and to speak for so many good and decent people."
He also struck the same optimistic tone of his campaign's final weeks.
"I utterly reject pessimism," Romney said. "We may not have carried on Nov. 7, but we have not lost the country we love, and we have not lost our way."
Romney's 2012 running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, spoke earlier Friday and avoided public soul-searching about the future of the GOP, NBC News reported. He focused instead on the budget plan he introduced earlier this week.
"This has been a really big week. We got white smoke from the Vatican, and we got a budget from the Senate," Ryan joked. "But when you read it, you find the Vatican's not the only place blowing smoke this week."
Other speakers at Friday's CPAC conference included National Rife Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Donald Trump.