One year ago, as a parade of would-be Republican presidential hopefuls addressed conservative activists at this annual Conservative Political Action Conference, their easy applause line was the idea of unseating President Obama.
Now, at the start of a three-week gap between nominating contests, there seems to be relief that nominal frontrunner Mitt Romney's momentum has been stalled, and that the party's right flank holds the power.
"I'm thrilled with where we are," Ralph Reed, head of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, said in an interview. "It's wide open, and I think it's keeping the activists in the game, it's keeping the donors in the game, [and] it's going to sharpen the performance of whoever the ultimate nominee is."
Reed, who is neutral in the race, sparked a roar of approval in a spacious hotel ballroom here when he brought up Rick Santorum's three-for-three performance on Tuesday during a panel discussion of the 2012 race. He said his message that fuses conservative positions on social issues with a fiscal and economic vision is the right one.
Without another election until a pair of primaries on Feb. 28, Romney's speech to this audience Friday is seen as an important opportunity to reassure the party base that he's one of them.
"He needs to make it clear that he's not just running to be the manager of the economy, but he's running to chart a course for America in the 21st century that will make her stronger, better, prouder and a greater beacon of hope and liberty for the whole world," he said.