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Romney re-enters GOP fray

The presidential election ended almost nine months ago, but Mitt Romney re-emerged Tuesday to continue his fight against President Barack Obama’s policies and assert himself as a Republican Party elder at a time when the party is struggling to find its path forward.

Romney sought to re-establish himself as a force within the GOP with a speech in the politically crucial state of New Hampshire, weighing in on the fractious battles to play out within the Republican Party since last November.

The former Massachusetts governor most pointedly sought to tamp down a charge led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Tea Party conservatives, who have vowed not to fund the government — risking a government shutdown — unless Obama's health care law is defunded.

The former presidential candidate shared his thoughts on the debate, telling several hundred Republican donors at a fundraiser in New Hampshire, "we've got to stay smart, very smart." The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

"I badly want Obamacare to go away, and stripping it of funds has appeal. But we need to exercise great care about any talk of shutting down government," Romney said. "I'm afraid that in the final analysis, Obamacare would get its funding, our party would suffer in the next elections, and the people of the nation would not be happy."

Having lost last fall's presidential contest, many Republicans eagerly shuffled Romney to the dustbin of history following the election, and he has mostly shied away from the public spotlight since that defeat.

His speech was a remarkable effort by Romney to revive his reputation as a force in the GOP, following an election in which the former Bain Capital CEO struggled for months to rally conservatives behind his candidacy. Record-low performances among Latino voters and an absolute deficit in digital infrastructure versus the Obama campaign prompted Republicans to engage in post-electoral soul-searching, the implicit assumption of which was that the Romney campaign had failed on many fronts.

"Not very many people can say they've been through the process the way he has,” said David Kochel, an Iowa-based GOP operative with longtime ties to Romney. “He's been through the process twice and has obviously been able to draw conclusions upon reflection."

"In this case, he made remarks at a fundraiser he was invited to in a state that he has very close ties with," said another veteran Romney hand, who argued it was "over-analyzation" to say the speech meant Romney was re-emerging, per se.

"But I thought the most important qualifier in his remarks was that his viewpoint is the result of things he's learned from having been in the arena the last few years."

Romney himself nodded to the somewhat peculiar nature of his insight, given his defeat last fall.

"I do have some advice for us as a party. I know, I lost. I'm probably not the first person you'd ask for advice," he said. "But because we all learn from our mistakes, I may have a thought or two of value."

But Romney hardly embraced the kind of wholesale Republican makeover that some party figures have suggested. As some Republicans argue for moderation on social issues like abortion rights or same-sex marriage, and as others weigh whether to pivot away from the party's hawkish underpinnings, or debate whether to advance comprehensive immigration reform, Romney offered his verdict: Nothing major should change.

Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images file photo

Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney arrives to speak speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, on March 15, 2013.

"We cannot change policy to follow popularity; in the end, right prevails," he said. "We can change policy if new information shows us that we were wrong-of course, that's part of staying smart."

But Romney also offered up caution against the Republican-on-Republican battles that have plagued the GOP in primaries during the past few years. Romney argued against primaries in which GOP candidates cannibalize each other, which sometimes lead to more conservative nominees who then go on to lose or make major unforced errors in the general election.

"Staying smart also means backing candidates that can win," he said.

That translated into his final advice for New Hampshire Republicans, whose 2016 primary will play a major role in choosing the next GOP presidential nominee. He warned them to pick someone who can actually win, rather than an ideological firebrand who might not fare as well in a general election, possibly against Hillary Clinton.

"My guess is that every one of the contenders would be better than whoever the Democrats put up. But there will only be one or perhaps two who actually could win the election in November," Romney said. "Get behind those candidates-volunteer for them, campaign for them, vote for them."

Whether Romney's counsel will sway fellow Republicans — including Cruz, who will take his defund-Obamacare message to Iowa this weekend — is another question.

"I'm not sure he's going to change anyone who's entrenched in the idea that they're going to demand a defunding of Obamacare, but he helps people who are trying to understand this issue in a larger political context," Kochel said. "And in that respect, I think it does move the needle."

As to the man who beat him last fall, Romney was hardly charitable toward Obama, whom he criticized sharply over both domestic and foreign policy.

"I must admit. It has been hard to watch or read the news," he said. "What we feared would happen, is happening."

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