Santorum, Cruz and Trump Agree: Romney Blew 2012

The trio of conservatives trashed Romney in Iowa.

Mitt Romney, shown speaking on Nov. 5, 2012, in Manchester, N.H., blew it during the 2012 election, some Republicans say.

Mitt Romney, shown speaking on Nov. 5, 2012, in Manchester, N.H., blew it during the 2012 election, some Republicans say.

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AMES, Iowa – There's no coincidence the top Republican talent that trekked to Iowa for the Family Leadership Summit, an annual conservative event held in the first-in-the-nation caucus state, disagrees with the initial post-2012 election self-diagnosis by GOP officials on how to win over voters.

For former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who each played coy about their 2016 ambitions, the lessons of Mitt Romney's failed effort were on economic messaging.

[READ: Santorum Receives Warm Welcome at Iowa State Fair]

That lies in contrast to the self-autopsy report commissioned by the Republican National Committee. Reince Priebus, the current chairman, and Haley Barbour, a former chairman as well as the former Mississippi governor, co-authored a report earlier this year which said the party needs to moderate its language – if not its policies – in order to woo voters in demographics where they were thumped by Democrats, such as women and Hispanics.

Santorum defeated Romney in the 2012 Iowa caucuses in a contest that saw no winner officially declared until several weeks after the event. The former senator, and solid conservative, said many overlooked the key aspect of his campaign which helped him continue to earn primary victories against Romney in their protracted slog.

"I mentioned that over two-thirds of Americans don't go to college, very few of them are going to be entrepreneurs or going to run big companies and we need to talk to them, too," Santorum said. "We can't just celebrate the job creators, we have to celebrate the job holders and we have to have a message for them."

He pointed out that while the Republican National Convention featured a number of successful business owners, "not one time did we see somebody from the factory floor walk out there and talk about working for the man or woman who built that business and how that helped them and their families."

[READ: 'Madam President' Effort Kicks Off in Iowa]

Cruz, the son of a Cuban immigrant and the freshman senator who rode the tea party wave to knock off his more well-established primary opponent, complimented the Romney campaign for coining the slogan "you did build that" off of a campaign gaffe by President Barack Obama, but said a better message would have been, "you can build that."

"If you were flying a private jet five years ago, you're still flying a private jet," Cruz said of the current sluggish economy. "I think as conservatives, we are and should be the party that champions the little guy, the person working to achieve the American dream."

Even Donald Trump, who delivered a meandering 30-minute address to close the summit, offered biting words for how the Romney campaign ended up on the losing end of a campaign that revolved around the economy.

"It was very interesting because I like Mitt Romney personally; he's a great guy," Trump said. "I don't know what happened with his campaign. I just don't get it. That was an election that couldn't have been lost."

Santorum, in a swipe at Romney, whose net worth is estimated at about $250 million, said many working- and middle-class Americans voted – begrudgingly – for Obama but only because they felt they had no other option.

[READ: Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum Make Rounds with Conservatives in Iowa]

"You saw from the last election, they don't want to vote for President Obama, but at least he went out and talked to them, at least went out and spoke about them," Santorum said. "We didn't do that. We marginalized them."

Indeed, according "Collision 2012," a new book by Washington Post reporter Dan Balz, that's precisely the calculation Democratic strategists made.

"The Obama campaign decided not to make the campaign about the state of the economy, but about who could look after the interests of the middle class in a time of historic transition," summarizes Peggy Noonan, a Wall Street Journal opinion writer, in a column previewing Balz's work. "At the same time they decided to go after Mitt Romney hard...they turned [his success] into a tale of downsizing, layoffs and rapacious capitalism."