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