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Mitt Romney talks about the economy, tea parties and the future of the Republican party

November 19, 2009 |  1:29 pm

RomneyA few minutes before Mitt Romney spoke to conservative donors at a dinner hosted by the Young America's Foundation conference in Santa Barbara this month, he made a surprise appearance before a roomful of student attendees who had been squeezed out of the dinner due to lack of space.

"Hey, everybody!" he said. "Ho! Ho!"

The 200 or so young conservatives cheered. "You are a good American!" one young man shouted.

For a few minutes, the former Massachusetts governor bantered with the crowd with the ease of a stand-up comedian. He fielded questions about the economy -- "It will get better"  -- and the 2012 presidential election.

"Are you running?" someone asked.

Romney laughed. "I'm running up the stairs," he said.

Romney, who sought the Republican presidential nomination last year and lost to Arizona Sen. John McCain, is widely seen as a front runner in the race for the 2012 nomination. Although he hasn't announced his intentions, he spoke like a candidate at the conference, seeming eager to impress the deep-pocketed donors in attendance.

The Young America's Foundation aims to groom high school and college students to be future leaders by exposing them to the conservative philosophies that organizers say are missing from many classrooms. Last weekend's conference brought nearly 300 high school and college students to the Reagan Ranch Center, where the foundation is based, for a series of lectures.

A website tracking potential candidates for the 2012 presidential election reports that...

...Romney's political action fund raised $440,000 in October. The website, said Romney's Free and Strong America PAC has raised more than $3 million so far this year. 

Interestingly, the site also compared Romney's fundraising numbers with those of two of his likely opponents in the primary, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.

As of July 1 of this year, Romney had raised $1,908,000, Palin, $733,000, and Huckabee, $304,000, the website reports.

During the 2008 campaign, some conservatives said they were hesitant to vote for Romney because he was perceived as being liberal on some social issues.

On Friday, he seemed determined to overcome that impression.

In his speech, given in a room filled with more than two dozen pictures of President Ronald Reagan, Romney gave a shout-out to the tea party protesters and spoke about his new book, "No Apologies: The Case for American Greatness." (It is slated to be released by St. Martin's Press in March.)

He also said the Republican Party needed to build support among young people, women and Latinos. "We need to make sure they know there are conservatives and that we are right," he said.

-- Kate Linthicum

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File photo: Mitt Romney. Credit: Associated Press.