But he waltzed out of the presidential race as the belle of the ball at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Thursday -- the beneficiary of being the last one tapped by the judges.
Conservatives came to Romney too late, and vice versa. By the time he became the object of conservative affections, the dance was over -- and the blue ribbon was pretty much John McCain's.
Commentators were left to wonder, after Romney's stalwart farewell speech, where that presidential-sounding guy had been. Ironically, they said his eventual presidential or vice-presidential chances probably went up with his graceful exit from this year's race.
Sometimes you have to leave for the crowd to appreciate you.
It is too bad the evening had to end this way. We believe Mitt Romney could've been a fine president. One reason he won't be, as one observer noted, is that he was sometimes too slick and polished -- not as human and empathetic feeling as, say, a Mike Huckabee or a Bill Clinton.
Regardless, Romney established himself as the go-to conservative Thursday, following belated endorsements of him by conservative radio talk show hosts.
He talked about the need to strengthen families, honor people of faith, protect American culture against erosion from within, lower taxes in order to avoid becoming this century's France -- and most of all to stand up to Islamic jihad.
On the last point, he said he agreed with McCain. And he said he worried that, by staying in the race and possibly weakening the GOP in advance of its fight with the Democrats, he might also weaken the country's fight against radical Muslims. Democrats, he said, "would retreat and declare defeat. And the consequence of that would be devastating.
"I disagree with Sen. McCain on a number of issues, as you know. But I agree with him on doing whatever it takes to be successful in Iraq, on finding and executing Osama bin Laden, and on eliminating al-Qaida and terror.
"If I fight on in my campaign, all the way to the convention, I would forestall the launch of a national campaign and make it more likely that Sen. Clinton or Obama would win. And in this time of war, I simply cannot let my campaign be a part of aiding a surrender to terror.
"If this were only about me, I would go on. But it's never been only about me. I entered this race because I love America, and because I love America, I feel I must now stand aside, for our party and for our country."
He might also have seen the writing on the wall -- and the balance in his considerable checkbook. Whatever the reasons, Romney took the first step toward uniting the Republican Party in advance of the November election.
Before Romney spoke, conservative guru Rush Limbaugh, a fierce critic of McCain, was saying that it's not up to him and other conservatives to unite the Republican Party; it's up to its leaders -- i.e., McCain.
Then again, it takes two to tango.