Mitt Romney returns to the public spotlight with a speech today at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Oxon Hill, Md. But his reappearance is unlikely to induce a collective sigh over what might have been. Indeed, conservatives at the retreat are making it crystal clear that they have put the election, as well as their former leader, behind them.

While it's hardly new for the party faithful to distance themselves from a losing presidential candidate, the alacrity with which conservatives have dropped Romney is striking. "What can he offer them?" Craig Shirley, a Reagan biographer, tells NBC News. "Based on his interview I saw last month, not much. When he ran, he didn't seem to understand much of the country."

That has to hurt. Only a few months ago, thousands upon thousands of conservatives across the country were flocking to Romney rallies and showering him with deafening applause. 

But now, Romney may have to get used to hearing crickets. "The base moved on four months ago," says James Hohmann at Politico, "and most Republican activists don't really care what their failed nominee thinks any more."

Of course, Romney has always had some trouble connecting with the conservative base. It was at CPAC a year ago that he famously described himself as "severely conservative," words that no true conservative should ever have to utter. And the muted response to his return to the public square has only underscored that he never had the party's wholehearted support to begin with.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, apparently not one to refrain from kicking a man when he's down, earlier this week mocked Romney's ideological squishiness. "The popular media narrative is that this country has shifted away from conservative ideals, as evidenced by the last two presidential elections," he said. "That might be true if Republicans had actually nominated conservative candidates in 2008 and 2012."

But above all, conservatives are eager to turn over a new leaf. The most buzzed-about events at CPAC thus far have been dueling speeches by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, two young stars who both took shots at the old guard. Paul said the party's leaders have "grown stale and moss-covered," while Rubio appears to be running against Romney's ghost, blasting his infamous "47 percent" remarks wherever he goes.

"The vast majority of the American people are hard-working taxpayers who take responsibility for their families, go to work every day, they pay their mortgage on time, they volunteer in their community," Rubio said. "This is where the vast majority of the American people are. What's changed is the world around us."

With friends like these, right?