In dropping out of the GOP race Thursday, Mitt Romney showed a great deal of class and a flair for the dramatic. But what’s next? In particular, if he really does see 2008 as 1976, what does he have to do to convince conservatives that he could be the next Reagan?

Mitt Romney is not the next Ronald Reagan, at least not yet. That’s not a personal criticism of him, it’s just a reflection of the fact that Reagan spent a good 30 years prior to 1976 studying and speaking out on the Communist threat, he spent two terms as the governor of the country’s most populous state, and built and led a movement that was always larger than himself. Reagan was always about the battle of ideas and moving the country away from big government and toward smaller government. In a serious way, Reagan led an ideological war against Communism that culminated the year after he left office, when the Berlin Wall came down. There is no analogous political figure on the scene today, who has spent decades studying the threat we face now from al Qaeda and its ideological allies. There just isn’t. We shouldn’t kid ourselves that there is and no one at this point has earned Reagan’s mantle.

But we also shouldn’t drown ourselves in sorrow and settle for less for all time. We have to settle for less this year, but I mean for the future, we shouldn’t just assume that crossover acts like McCain will own the party forever. They won’t, unless we let them, and the end states of two triangulators in a row — Clinton and Bush 43 — show that while such politics may benefit those who practice them, they tend to destroy political parties and movements. The next successful conservative movement president, the next Reagan if there is to be one, won’t be a triangulator. So where and how can Mitt Romney figure into all of this?

If Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee or any of the other contenders wants to be the next Reagan, they will have to earn it. It won’t and shouldn’t be handed to them. It’s clear after the GOP primary’s outcome that a majority of the party faithful didn’t prefer Romney. The majority actually didn’t prefer anyone, but has settled on John McCain. It remains to be seen whether McCain can unite the party under his banner, and I think he has his work cut out for him on that.

As for Romney, he has already been a governor and he has the public sector and private sector work on his resume plus a personal fortune that made him a top tier candidate. He has no personal baggage to drag him down, save the Mormon issue, and he went a long way toward neutralizing that in this campaign. There isn’t much benefit to him returning to elective office or entering any presidential cabinet unless he is taking on a clear challenge or mission. Knocking off Senator John Kerry would be nice, but would also make him just one among 100 and limit his maneuverability.

What Romney doesn’t have and never really established is his conservative bona fides (the same goes for Huckabee, for that matter, whose social conservatism is solid while he lacks on the economic and national security fronts). Romney won endorsements from credible sources, but the voters either didn’t warm to him personally or didn’t trust him philosophically because he hasn’t always stood on the same side of many issues. From an organizational and personnel point of view he ran a great campaign, but from an ideological and emotional point of view he never made the deal. That’s the bad news.

The good news for him is that he has a few years in which the conservative mantle is up for grabs. No one owns it or has earned it. It could be his if he chooses to earn it. Reagan changed his positions on some issues over time, so it’s not the case that an honest change of mind is permanent political poison. It’s not. But Romney has to prove that where he is now is where he will always be and that he’s a studied and worthy leader.

Depending on the outcome this fall, Romney either has 4 or 8 years to prove that he is in his ideological home for good. To do that, we’ll need to hear from him through the years. Reagan didn’t go away after 1976. He stayed active and kept ready for 1980.

Romney’s personal wealth gives him an advantage over a Mike Huckabee when it comes to establishing himself as a conservative center of gravity. He can and probably will hold summits with fellow conservatives, maybe his own version of Restoration Weekend or even a kind of CPAC, but he should also stay active in events and groups like that that already exist. Build your own but not at their expense to expand the conservative movement’s arsenal rather than create factions and fissures. He can use his wealth to engage in entrepreneurial conservatism, by building or publicly supporting new media alternatives to the Soros-backed MoveOn, Media Matters and the like. And he can also continue to generate more money for the conservative cause through private enterprise and personal persuasion.

But over and above that, he has to show conservatives that he’s engaged in the battle of ideas personally and not just throwing money at them. He has to study up, in a serious and patient way, on the jihadist threat, the broader security threat environment including the role that border insecurity plays not only in terrorism but in violent crime, drug and human trafficking and identity theft. And he has to show that his social conservatism wasn’t forged out of convenience.

As a late convert to the conservative cause, he may be in the best position of any prominent Republican to make the case that conservative ideas on national security and the jihadist threat, sound economics and conservative social policies are the way to go. Converts are more likely than lifelong believers to become zealots and advocates in the best sense, by exuding the passion and explaining the ideas that persuaded them to switch. Ronald Reagan, whom we all regard as the uber Republican now, started out his political life as a Democrat. He became the most effective Republican against Democrats, in part because he loved conservative ideas, and in part because he could explain those idea better than anyone else, and in part because as a former Democrat Reagan knew what made them tick. He might not have won in 1980 without the “Reagan Democrats,” and he certainly wouldn’t have been as effective without peeling natural conservatives away from the increasingly leftist Democrat party.

So if Romney wants to be Reagan 2.0, he’ll have to earn it. It will take hard work and require patience. The good news for him is, he probably can. He is a sunny optimist, a strong speaker, a telegenic presence and a financial wizard. But he has to show that he has and will always have a conservative soul.