The savviest political play of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign may have come in the way he ended it.
By getting out of the race Thursday -- on his own terms, and before another round of losses forced him to concede defeat -- the former Massachusetts governor showed grace and generosity, taking an important step toward healing wounds from the combative campaign he'd run.
And in casting his decision to suspend his campaign as a recommitment to Republican principles -- in front of a crowd of conservative activists in Washington -- he went a long way toward establishing himself as a champion of a conservative movement that may never fully embrace the man who looks increasingly like the likely 2008 GOP presidential nominee: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
"This was a level of political acumen that if Romney had displayed throughout the campaign, he'd be the nominee right now," said Rick Wilson, a Republican consultant. "He did the right thing, and he did it under the cover of the good of the party. He's branded himself as the conservative leader in the party right now."
Mitt Romney for President ... 2012?
The tone and tenor of his exit ensures Romney, 60, a bright future in the party, should he choose to re-enter politics.
He stands no realistic shot at being McCain's running mate -- the personal animosity between the two men runs too deep -- but he will be considered an immediate front-runner whenever the nomination next becomes open, in 2012 or 2016.
Romney's early exit also puts pressure on former GOP Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to follow suit.
Huckabee faces an even larger delegate gap than Romney, and Republican insiders predict he would not last long beyond next Tuesday's primaries in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
If Huckabee harbors hope of joining McCain on the ticket, a swift exit would seem to be the easiest path as the party clamors to unite itself for a tough race against either Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., or Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.
Following Reagan's Lead
As Romney himself alluded in his final speech as a candidate, he's following a path tread by none other than Ronald Reagan in falling short in his first run for the presidency.
Reagan took his battle with President Gerald Ford all the way to the Republican National Convention in 1976 -- only to lose the fight and emerge as a conservative hero who stormed to the nomination in 1980.
Romney is getting out long before the convention -- which will make it easier to repair his relationship with McCain, whom he will almost certainly endorse and work to elect.
But before that comes, he issued a full-throated endorsement of conservatism, in a direct, compelling speech that featured none of the wooden qualities he's sometimes displayed on the stump.
"Conservative principles are needed now more than ever," Romney said. "There is an important difference from 1976. … We are a nation at war. And Barack and Hillary have made their intentions clear regarding Iraq and the war on terror. They would retreat and declare defeat. And the consequence of that would be devastating."
Romney has years of hard work tending the base ahead of him if he hopes to be Reagan's successor. But he left the race with an edge over perhaps all other comers in positioning himself to become the party's voice and face.
"He's making a down payment on the future, there's no question," said Keith Appell, a Republican consultant who is unaffiliated with the 2008 candidates. "The Republican Party has traditionally been a party of the next guy in line. Looking ahead, if you're not successful this year, you want to position himself as the next guy in line."
Given the political realities, Romney cashed in on his investment at precisely the right moment, said Scott Reed, who managed Bob Dole's 1996 presidential campaign.
"This was the right way to do it -- the right place and the right timing," Reed said. "He's going out on a high."