Feb. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney, pushing to retain front-runner status in the Republican presidential race and build credibility with voters who have resisted him, told party activists he was a “severely conservative” governor who would govern that way in the White House.
The former Massachusetts chief executive leads in the hunt for convention delegates while failing to spark passion among the anti-abortion and anti-spending voters who form his party’s backbone. He veered off his prepared script at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington yesterday to drive home his message that he shares the values of those voters.
Romney, 64, said his upbringing instilled in him belief in religious liberty and economic opportunity; his business background as a private-equity executive reinforced his fiscal frugality; and his government service in Democrat-dominated Massachusetts confirmed his strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
“I fought against long odds in a deep-blue state,” Romney said, referring to the color designating Democratic-leaning states in U.S. political vernacular. “But I was a severely conservative Republican governor.”
Romney embellished prepared remarks circulated by his campaign, in which he was to describe himself simply as “a conservative governor.”
“I have been on the front lines,” he said at the conference, “and expect to be on those front lines again.”
He sought to burnish his credentials with party activists after a trio of losses in nominating contests Feb. 7 that highlighted his political weaknesses. To what degree he succeeded at CPAC will be partly gauged by how he fares in straw-poll results disclosed today as the conference ends.
Rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich also addressed the CPAC gathering yesterday, offering themselves as truer conservatives than Romney -- though without directly criticizing him.
Gingrich, 68, who spoke after the other two candidates, repeatedly decried the “establishment” as having “contempt for conservative ideas.”
“All of you have seen the Washington establishment and the Wall Street establishment pile on top of me,” he said. “All of you have seen them say things that were just profoundly false. And there’s a good reason for that: This campaign is a mortal threat to their grip on the establishment, because we intend to change Washington, not accommodate it.”
Gingrich was hit with a barrage of negative ads by Romney’s campaign and its allies in the days preceding Florida’s Jan. 31 primary. Romney’s win in that vote and Nevada’s Feb. 4 caucuses established him as the clear favorite for the Republican nomination, a position then thrown in doubt by Santorum’s three victories earlier this week.
Santorum, speaking first among the candidates at CPAC, worked to capitalize on momentum he gained from the results in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri. He urged party activists not to compromise on a candidate in the interest of scoring a “hollow victory” against President Barack Obama.
In a speech that targeted Romney without naming him, Santorum told his listeners that their ranks had “failed conservatism” in 2008 by tapping a nominee -- Arizona Senator John McCain -- who didn’t share their commitment to opposing government spending, gay marriage and abortion rights.
No ‘Hollow Victory’
“The lesson we’ve learned is that we will no longer abandon and apologize for the policies and principles that made this country great for a hollow victory in November,” said Santorum, who wins this week highlighted his appeal with the party’s base.
“We need conservatives now to rally for a conservative to go into November, to excite the conservative base, to pull with that excitement moderate voters and to defeat Barack Obama in the fall,” the former Pennsylvania senator said.
Santorum, 53, said he alone among the remaining Republican contenders could draw compelling contrasts with Obama, based on his opposition to the president’s top agenda items, including the 2010 health-care overhaul and cap-and-trade legislation to curb climate change.
Santorum frequently criticizes Romney for having signed health-insurance legislation in Massachusetts that contained a similar provision to the national law requiring medical insurance coverage. Romney made no mention of that measure during his speech.
In introducing Romney, Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union that puts on the conference, alluded to some Republicans’ suspicion of the candidate based on his changes of position on some core party principles. Romney, for instance, previously supported abortion rights.
“In each instance, the evolution has been toward the true conservative point of view,” Cardenas said. “That’s the type of evolution conservatives welcome and enthusiastically embrace.”
Santorum, who emphasizes his Catholic faith, in his speech touted his history of taking the lead in fights to block abortion rights and gay marriage as he appealed for like-minded Republicans to rally behind him.
“We’ve worked together in the vineyards,” he said. “We’ve taken on the tough battles that confront this country. I know you and you know me. And that’s important.”
U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas, who won CPAC’s 2010 and 2011 straw polls and is the fourth remaining Republican presidential candidate, declined a speaking invitation to the group this year. His son, Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, appeared before the gathering Feb. 9.
The conference wraps up today with a speech by former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, the Republican vice presidential nominee in 2008.
--With assistance from Julie Bykowicz in Washington. Editors: Don Frederick, Jim Rubin.
To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at email@example.com