A 'Severely Conservative' Romney Tries to Woo CPAC

Santorum and Gingrich also spoke on the second day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, trying to show solidarity with the GOP base crowd.

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Mitt Romney's much-hyped task at the Conservative Political Action Conference: convince this exotic tribe that he was one of them. And so, in his 26-minute speech Friday, the word "conservative" appeared 24 times.

But when Romney went off script, with a single adverb, he described conservatism as if it were a disease.

"I was a severely conservative governor," he said of his time as chief executive of Massachusetts.

That one sour note did much to undermine the goal of the speech, which was -- aside from repetitive subliminal word-association with "conservative" -- to paint Romney as no arriviste to the conservative cause.

Romney, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich all spoke on Day 2 of CPAC, each hoping to win the affections of the party base that has behaved in such a fickle manner this campaign season.

Santorum, for his part, made the most of his status as the man of the moment, seeming comfortable and at ease in his speech earlier in the day. Gingrich, speaking last of the three, gave an unremarkable, overlong recitation of his stump speech.

Santorum was introduced, jarringly, by the man bankrolling his supposedly uncoordinated "super PAC," billionaire Foster Friess, who, unlike the candidate, wore a sweater vest. "A conservative, a moderate and a liberal walk into a bar," Friess joked. "And the bartender says, 'Hi, Mitt!'"

Santorum said conservatives had "learned our lesson" and knew better than to "abandon and apologize for the principles that made this country great" to achieve "a hollow victory in November."

The election, he said, would be about "really big things, more than just the economy -- foundational principles." He pitched an economic policy that would, he said, help even those who don't vote for conservatives, such as the "very poor" -- a cutting jab that implied that Romney's profession of non-concern for the very poor was based on pandering rather than merely class blindness.

Santorum argued that a less-than-enthusiastic GOP base would never win, and that Romney's supposed organizational advantage was no message to take to a general election.

"We're not going to win this election because the Republican candidate has the most money to beat up on their opponent," he said, adding, "Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate of a party who the party's not excited about?"

Much of the appeal of Romney's candidacy is predicated on the idea that beating Obama will be difficult, and compromises required to achieve it. But Romney, perhaps recognizing that voters have grown weary and suspicious of that message, tried to convince the crowd that it's governing he's interested in, not power.

"Of course we can defeat Barack Obama! That's the easy part!" Romney said. The hard part, the important part, he said, would come later -- changing the country.

Romney distinguished himself from the college kids in attendance who, he speculated, were learning conservatism by reading Burke and Hayek; when he was their age, he said, he would have thought those were infielders for the Tigers.

Rather, he said, "I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism" -- growing up in a rags-to-riches family, being married to the same woman for 42 years and making lots of money in business.

Romney also got in a shot at Santorum and Gingrich, saying he was "the only candidate in this race, Republican or Democrat, who has never worked a day in Washington. I don't have old scores to settle or decades of cloakroom deals to defend."

Voters, Romney said, should be "skeptical" of "any politician who tries to convince you that they hated Washington so much that they just couldn't leave."

The ballroom was packed for all three candidates, but there was clearly less energy in the room for Gingrich, whose candidacy has swooned in recent weeks. He was introduced by his wife, Callista, who told some awkward, overprogrammed jokes about her beloved husband. Newt, she said, "golfs the way he does everything" -- "he's willing to learn and he never gives up."

Taking the stage, Gingrich clarified that he was "a very bad golfer."

Image credit: Reuters/Jim Bourg

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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