Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, one of many rivals defeated by Mitt… (Scott Applewhite, Associated…)
TAMPA, Fla. — This week was Mitt Romney's moment to shine, the culmination of years of work to become the GOP presidential nominee, capped by his formal acceptance Thursday night. But for many others who gathered here for the Republican National Convention, it was the official acknowledgment that they fell short.
For the also-rans, who lost either their bids to be the GOP nominee or the subsequent running-mate hunt, the convention was an opportunity to show party unity, prove their loyalty and, above all, try to remain relevant.
Tim Pawlenty, the former Minnesota governor, is affable and quick-witted in person but was never a dynamic force on the stump. He took the role of loyal foot soldier during his Wednesday convention speech, bashing President Obama as a failure.
Photos: Romney accepts GOP nomination
"Barack Obama is the tattoo president," he said. "Like a big tattoo, it seemed cool when we were young, but later on that decision doesn't look so good. And you wonder, 'What was I thinking?' But the worst part is you're going to have to explain it to your kids."
He was among several speakers Romney passed over as his running mate, a fact that Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio alluded to in his speech to delegates shortly before Paul D. Ryan accepted the vice presidential nomination.
"They say I was on Gov. Romney's shortlist," Portman said. "Apparently, it wasn't short enough."
Newt Gingrich, a former college professor, schooled delegates during daily two-hour classes called "Newt U," a reprise of the part — academic and historian — he relished playing on the campaign trail during his unsuccessful primary run.
The former House speaker, not known for his modesty, basked in the role.
"For me, this is an extension of what I've done my whole life," Gingrich told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "If I had won the presidency, I would have been a teaching president."
Rick Santorum, who came closest to derailing Romney's nomination, used his moment in the spotlight to press the social issues that fueled his insurgent campaign, decrying an "assault on marriage and family," and barely mentioning Romney. He reiterated a central theme from his campaign by referring to his 4-year-old daughter, who was born with severe disabilities.
"I thank God that America still has one party that reaches out their hands in love to lift up all of God's children — born and unborn," the former senator from Pennsylvania said.
Any lingering bitterness, though, seems to have dissipated, as was clear in a video captured by the San Francisco Chronicle of Gingrich and Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota lavishing praise on Ann Romney, and then cooing adoringly at one another. "Newtie!" Bachmann exclaimed before embracing Gingrich and declaring him the "smartest guy on the planet."
Amid a sea of reporters, influential party activists and donors, the question was instantly raised: Would you do it again? Bachmann demurred. Businessman Herman Cain, whose bid was derailed by allegations of infidelity and sexual harassment, said he would not run again.
"If everyone had competed fairly and honestly, I'd probably be the nominee being nominated this week," he told CBS News.
Potential future candidates are expected to keep their aspirations silent because the party line is that Romney will win in November and seek his second term in 2016. But not everyone got the message. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who stumbled badly this year, said he would almost certainly try again next time.
"Oh, absolutely," Perry told NBC in a convention-floor interview Tuesday night. "There's a long time until 2016 and a lot of good things can happen."
Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who is retiring after serving more than two decades in Congress, had the biggest support group of the former candidates. Paul, who never endorsed Romney and did not speak at the convention, held a raucous rally for his supporters here on Sunday and pledged that they would remain on offense against the GOP establishment.
"We'll get into the tent, believe me, because we will become the tent eventually," he said.
The only 2012 candidate not to make an appearance here was Jon Huntsman Jr., which is perhaps not surprising since he barely identified himself as a Republican even when he was running. The former Utah governor tepidly endorsed Romney after dropping out in February.