Mitt Romney Kisses The Conservative Ring (The Note)

By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone ) and AMY WALTER ( @amyewalter )

Four years ago Mitt Romney took the stage at an annual gathering of conservatives in Washington, DC and told his audience that he had to "stand aside, for our party and for our country."

Today, rather than ending his quest for the presidency, he returns to the Conservative Political Action Conference as the likely - if somewhat weakened - front-runner for the Republican nomination.

And he has some work to do.

ABC's Jonathan Karl took to the halls of CPAC yesterday and didn't hear a lot of enthusiasm for Romney. "I am not a fan," one man told him, adding that he'd never met a "true die hard Romney supporter."

Even so, as Karl noted on "Good Morning America" today, many of the same reluctant conservatives also viewed Romney as the inevitable nominee.

The former Massachusetts governor needs to lock in this segment of the Republican base if he's going to capture the nomination and have a shot at beating President Obama in November. And he's taking steps to do it.

As The New York Times reports today, Romney met with a small group of influential conservative leaders yesterday: "three dozen evangelical organizers, conservative writers and Tea Party activists were in the room at the Marriott Wardman Park, and the largely friendly group politely grilled him over nuts and soda about his positions on social issues and pressed him on his surprising losses during Tuesday's presidential contests."

When he addresses the full conference later this afternoon, he's planning a back-to-basics pitch.

"What I'll say in my speech is first describe the challenge that we face as a nation and the conservative choice that has to be brought forward," Romney said in an interview with Fox News' Sean Hannity last night, "but secondly, I'll look at my record and describe my record as governor."

Despite the anticipation, be wary of over-interpretation of Romney's speech and his reception at the conservative confab. He still has three weeks to get his message across and fine tune his strategy for the next two primary states - Michigan and Arizona, both of which look ripe for a Romney win.

That said, the fact that eight contests into 2012 we're still talking about how Romney can't figure out how to sell himself to conservatives is remarkable.

Two of Romney's rivals - Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich - will also be on hand at CPAC today. Santorum, in particular, is hoping to capitalize on his campaign's wins in three primary states as he appeals to the activist crowd.

"It's funny he's not talking about his record," Santorum told reporters in Tulsa, Okla. yesterday. "Governor Romney's campaign has been about serially tearing down opponents, without offering any kind of vision for what he wants to do for this country."

WHITE HOUSE SEEKS 'ACCOMMODATION' FOR RELIGIOUS ORGANIZATIONS. ABC's Jake Tapper reports: "With the White House under fire for its new rule requiring employers including religious organizations to offer health insurance that fully covers birth control coverage, ABC News has learned that later today the White House - possibly President Obama himself - will likely announce an attempt to accommodate these religious groups. The move, based on state models, will almost certainly not satisfy bishops and other religious leaders since it will preserve the goal of women employees having their birth control fully covered by health insurance. Sources say it will be respectful of religious beliefs but will not back off from that goal, which many religious leaders oppose since birth control is in violation of their religious beliefs."

NOTED: The White House's decision is unlikely to tamp down the criticism coming from the right about the controversy over contraception, including from the GOP candidates who have been speaking out on the issue.

On the campaign trail Santorum has been focused on the controversial regulation by the Department of Health and Human Services, and as ABC's Shushannah Walshe reports, his message on Thursday to an audience at Oral Roberts University, an evangelical college, was particularly pointed.  "I know it's the Catholic church, but it's the Catholic church first, it won't be the last if they get away with it," he said, adding the administration is making the church pay for contraception, something they believe to be "a grievous moral wrong."

THIS WEEK ON "THIS WEEK": RICK SANTORUM.  On Sunday George Stephanopoulos welcomes Rick Santorum less than a week after his surprising wins in Tuesday's primaries. How does he plan to carry his newfound momentum forward? Can he bring together the conservative vote and challenge Romney for the nomination? George also talks with White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew about the contraception controversy. Plus, House Budget Committee Chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., will weigh in on why he says his party needs a bold agenda to beat President Obama and win a mandate for Republican policies.

Finally, don't miss the powerhouse roundtable with ABC's George Will, political strategist and ABC News contributor Donna Brazile, Fox News contributor and co-founder of Keep America Safe Liz Cheney, and Washington Post columnist David Ignatius debate all the week's politics, including the latest on the GOP race, the impact of the contraceptive controversy, and how turmoil overseas may impact the economy and the 2012 election.


POWER PLAYERS: ABC's John Berman on Mitt Romney's successful block of the glitter bomber and more plays of the week in Power Players' "Politically Foul" Friday edition. WATCH:


MAINE CAUCUS PRIMER. On Saturday evening, the Maine Republican Party will announce the results of the state's caucuses. The voting contest has been under way there since Saturday, Feb. 4. Maine hosts what is known as a "lazy caucus," as ABC's Elizabeth Hartfield notes. The state's Republican Party requested that Maine's counties and municipalities hold their caucus events sometime between Feb. 4 and Feb. 11. The majority of the state's events have been slated for Feb. 11, but a couple of towns have already caucused. Twenty- four delegates are at stake in Maine's contest. In 2008, Mitt Romney won the state, which is close to his home base of Massachusetts, with 52 percent of the vote. John McCain and Ron Paul finished in second and third place, with 22 percent and 18 percent of the vote respectively. Turnout was low in 2008 - 5,482 votes were cast, about 1 percent of the voting eligible population.

WHAT TO EXPECT. Most of the big caucuses are going to be held Saturday morning, hence the reason Romney is swooping into Portland tonight for a campaign event. Ron Paul is seen as the favorite in Maine, but his under-performance in Minnesota and Iowa suggest that his vaunted grassroots operation may be overvalued. Romney would sure like a win in a state he carried last time around. Maine GOP is expected to announce results at 6:45pm ET on Saturday night.

FROM THE LEFT: The Democratic National Committee is out with a web video previewing Romney's CPAC speech today, aptly titled: "Mitt Romney: What will he say today?" The DNC accuses Romney of "going further to appeal to the most extreme, far-right wing conservatives in the country…the Donald Trumps, Ann Coulters and Michele Bachmanns of the world." WATCH:

Also the advocacy group, Americans United For Change, offer up what they are calling a "greatest hits" album called "Mitt's Hits," featuring a few mocking tunes, including "Mo' Money, No Problems," "How Much is That Doggy on the Car Roof?", "Light My (You're Fired)," and "If I Had (Another) Million Dollars."  It's the fourth video in the group's Mitt Romney-Gordon Gekko series. LISTEN:


@kakukowski : @RNC Launches Web Video on Five Year Anniversary of Obama's Campaign Kickoff


CPAC TAKEAWAYS - DAY 1:  For a couple of hours at the Conservative Political Action Conference  yesterday afternoon, the presidential primary seemed to lurch into a time warp, ABC's Matt Negrin notes. There was Michele Bachmann bringing conservatives to their feet as she blamed President Obama for hurting the country and abandoning Israel.   "Israel has rarely enjoyed President Obama's support," she said to a cheering crowd. And there was Rick Perry, drawing a full house to hear him repeatedly slam the White House for a "war on faith." "If it's halftime in America," Perry said to chuckles. "I'm fearful of what the final score is going to be if we start the second half with this president as quarterback." More of the yesterday's greatest hits from Negrin: and Z. Byron Wolf:

HOW LOW CAN HE GO? ROMNEY PLAYS THE EXPECTATIONS GAME. After his losses this week, Mitt Romney appears to be taking pains to keep expectations in check for his performance in the coming contests - even the one in his home state of Michigan. "I'd like to win Arizona and Michigan because, of course, there are a lot of delegates at stake," Romney said in an interview with Neil Cavuto on the Fox Business network on Thursday. But Romney was evidently not in a predicting mood. "I can't make a prediction as to what will happen. Last time I won, but I think I won by two points.  So it was pretty darned close," Romney said. "I'm not expecting a landslide." "Pretty darned close"? As it turns out Romney won the state in 2008 by more than 9 points - not two - over his rival and the eventual GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain. And when it comes to the primaries ahead - Michigan and Arizona hold contests on Feb. 28 and another 10 states will do so on Mar. 6 - Romney continued to lower expectations. "I expect that I'll lose a number of states before we actually get to a point where I get the 1,150 delegates that I need," Romney said. Romney or one of his opponents will need 1,144 delegates to clinch the nomination and the former Massachusetts governor acknowledged that it would be "mathematically possible" for him to arrive at this summer's Republican National Convention without a majority of the delegates, but "unlikely."

NO LOVE FOR NEWT?  Herman Cain and Rick Perry may have bestowed their endorsements upon Newt Gingrich, but when it came to their CPAC speeches in Washington, D.C. Thursday, neither former presidential candidate used the opportunity to plug their endorsee, according to ABC's Arlette Saenz.  Perry, making his second appearance since leaving the presidential race, even had an opening in his speech to mention Gingrich when he told the conservative crowd they didn't "need to settle" this election, but Perry made no reference to the former House speaker who he endorsed when he dropped out of the race last month. A source close to Perry said the Texas governor made phone calls to donors on behalf of Gingrich earlier this week, and overnight, Perry sent a fundraising e-mail blast, calling Gingrich the "bold Reagan conservative" to counter President Obama, a phrase Gingrich repeats consistently on the trail. Gingrich has set the Texas primary as a benchmark for his campaign and could rely on Perry's support to give him a boost among Lone Star State Republicans.

ROOM FOR ONE MORE? "The angst within the Republican Party about Mitt Romney's candidacy has risen to such levels that some of the most experienced, influential members of the party are still talking about a late entry into the GOP primary," writes the Huffington Post's Jon Ward. "'Now normally that's a joke,' said a longtime party leader who spoke to The Huffington Post about the possibility of a late candidacy on the condition that he not be identified. "I mean normally that just can't go anywhere. But could it go somewhere now, if [Rick] Santorum continues to be unable to raise money from anybody but Foster Friess, if Newt [Gingrich] won't give Santorum a passing lane, if Romney continues to under-perform? If Ron Paul's 10, 12 or 20 percent just stays static as I expect it to?' 'Now, is that likely to happen? Hell no, it ain't likely to happen. But it's the first time in my life time where there's a real chance,' the Republican said. He identified New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie as the one potential candidate who could possibly overcome the fact that a brokered convention - where the party's delegates would decide in August who the nominee would be - would in many ways be the ultimate back-room deal, flying in the face of the entire Tea Party ethos."

SUPER BOWL VS. PRIMARIES (SUPER BOWL WINS). The GOP presidential race has dominated the airwaves, the nightly news and the late-night comedy stages for months, but this battle is far from over, ABC's Amy Bingham notes. Less than 1 percent of the county has actually cast a ballot in a Republican primary or caucus so far, eight of which took place in the past month. While the first three contests in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina saw record turnouts, participation has plummeted for the last five. About 280,000 Florida voters stayed home this year compared with the last presidential primary. Turnout was down by 11,000 in Nevada and Minnesota and Colorado: Each saw participation fall by 4,000. And here's a eye-opening statistic: The biggest game in American sports posted the lowest attendance numbers in six years, but more people still went to the Super Bowl than voted in the Colorado, Minnesota, Nevada Republican primaries. More than 68,000 people packed into Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium to watch the New York Giants defeat the New England Patriots last Sunday. Here are a few things more things that people turned out for in larger numbers than a GOP primary or caucus:


@JoshElliottABC : Happy birthday to my  @GMA colleague  @GStephanopoulos…hit that snooze button, my friend, as often as you'd like today….

@HotlineReid : Romney fundraiser in DC raised $1.3m last night, according to a source who was there  #HotlineSort

@nytjim : #Santorum Adjusting to Star Treatment on Trail

@FixAaron : Rep. Bachus faces insider-trading investigation - The Washington Post

@Chris_Moody : News release from liberal group says they are bringing 500 protesters to CPAC at noon today.  #CPAC12



- Mitt Romney will attend an event in Reston, Virginia, followed by an address to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.  He will end the day with a town hall in Portland, Maine.

- Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich will also deliver remarks at CPAC in Washington, D.C.

- Ron Paul takes the day off the campaign trail.

-ABC's Joanna Suarez

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