(CNN) – The next wave of Republican leaders can be found in the nation's statehouses, last year's GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney told a receptive crowd of conservative activists Friday.
In his first major speech since last November's defeat, Romney cited governors in traditionally Democratic states as examples of effective conservative leadership who could make inroads nationwide. Romney himself served as governor of Massachusetts before making bids for president in 2008 and 2012.
"As someone who just lost the last election, I am probably not in the best position to chart the course for the next one," Romney admitted at the Conservative Political Action Conference taking place in a Maryland suburb of Washington.
"But that being said, let me offer this advice. Perhaps because I am a former governor, I would urge us all to learn lessons that come from some of our greatest success stories and that's 30 Republican governors across the country. They are winning elections, but more importantly they are solving problems, big problems, important problems."
One of those governors – South Carolina's Nikki Haley – introduced Romney Friday, gaining loud applause when she touted her state's law mandating voter identification at polls. Haley wasn't originally scheduled to speak at CPAC, and several of the other GOP executives Romney mentioned, including Virginia's Bob McDonnell and New Jersey's Chris Christie, aren't on the speaking roster this year.
Both McDonnell and Christie have received some blowback from conservatives for their willingness to work with Democrats – McDonnell on the commonwealth's recently passed transportation bill, and Christie for his public praise of President Barack Obama during the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
But that bipartisan bent, which may have cost those governors a speaking slot at CPAC, is exactly what the Republican Party should be about, Romney argued.
"These governors have shown that they are able to reach across the aisle, offer innovative solutions, and then they are willing to take the heat that you have to take to do important things," he said. "We need the leadership and the ideas and the vision of these governors."
The nod to bipartisanship is a stark contrast to Romney's last appearance at CPAC in 2012, when he declared himself "severely conservative" to a crowd still weighing Republican primary hopefuls. As Romney advanced through the preliminary contests to eventually become the GOP nominee, many in the party continued to view his conservative credentials skeptically.
At this week's conservative confab, Romney's name has been largely absent from the major speeches, though some of his ideas have been repudiated by high profile speakers.
Rick Perry, explaining why conservatism wasn't dead in America, said "That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates."
And Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida lawmaker who's being regarded as a Republican savior, rebuffed Romney's assertion that the 47% of Americans dependent on government see themselves as victims, telling the crowd Thursday that the "vast majority of the American people are hard-working taxpayers who take responsibility for their families."
Romney eventually disavowed the remarks, saying they were "completely wrong."
The former presidential candidate didn't tackle any specific criticism of his campaign during his speech Friday, though said he was willing to examine the blunders that may have led to his loss.
"It is up to us to make sure that we learn from my mistakes, and from our mistakes, so that we can win the victories those people and this nation depend upon," he said.
And he hinted he would remain a part of the Republican Party's efforts going forward, saying, "I am sorry that I will not be your president, but I will be your co-worker and I will work shoulder to shoulder alongside you."