Three days after a trifecta of losses underlined lingering questions about his ability to win over the Republican Party’s base, Mitt Romney arrived at CPAC to allay skeptics’ fears. Throughout his second bid for the GOP nomination, Romney has made his business bona fides the centerpiece of his candidacy. But on Friday, before a packed room at the annual conservative confab, he sought to emphasize the record he compiled in Massachusetts. “I was a severely conservative governor,” he told the crowd. “I know conservatism, because I have lived conservatism.”
Conservative was the operative word: Reid Epstein, who covers Romney for Politico, tweeted that he used it 25 times in his 26-minute address. The speech comes as a new FOX poll shows Rick Santorum surging into second place nationally. (In surveys taken Wednesday and Thursday, in the wake of Santorum’s three-state sweep on Tuesday night, the former Pennsylvania senator deadlocks Romney, with 30% apiece.) It suggested a sense of unease about the Romney campaign’s protracted efforts to convince the party’s base that Romney’s beliefs reflect their own.
Romney addressed the crowd as a collaborator: we are in this together, you and I. “We conservatives aren’t just proud to cling to our guns and our religion. We’re also proud to cling to our Constitution,” he said. And: “I understand the battles that we as conservatives must fight, because I have been on the front lines.” Romney invoked his role in preventing Massachusetts “from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage” and pledged to run a “pro-life presidency.” He embraced Paul Ryan’s plan to reform entitlements and reminded the faithful that he is the only candidate left “who has never worked a day in Washington.” (Which isn’t to say he didn’t try.)
(MORE: Fears, Faith and Freedom at CPAC)
Mitt protests too much. His lengthy recitation of his conservative credentials was necessary precisely because they have been constantly called into question. By contrast, Rick Santorum — whom Romney’s aides have been assailing as a pork-barreling Washington insider — spoke with the easy assurance of a candidate who felt at home amid a conservative crowd. “As conservatives and Tea Party folks, we are not just wings of the Republican Party,” Santorum told the crowd in a well-received speech. “We are the Republican Party.”
Santorum didn’t ding his rival directly. But he argued that the battle in November should be fought by the candidate whose vision offered the sharpest juxtaposition with Barack Obama’s. He urged the crowd not to support a candidate who birthed “the stepchild of ObamaCare” and supported Wall Street bailouts. “We’re going to win with contrasts,” Santorum said. And he questioned the narrative, which Romney’s advisers have sought to assemble, that the former Massachusetts governor gives the GOP its best chance to oust the current President. “Why,” he asked, “would an undecided voter vote for a candidate of a party who the party isn’t excited about?”
It’s an unfair blanket statement. Roam the halls of CPAC, and you’ll find, alongside the Tea Partyers in the tricorn hats and the guy in a rhino suit, lots of Romney supporters who are plenty excited about his candidacy. The vast majority of Republicans who don’t support him say that they will work to elect him if he wins the nomination.
But even conservatives who support or sympathize with Romney are struck by the obstinacy of his detractors. “There are a lot of people who say that if Mitt Romney were the candidate, he wouldn’t win, and they would stay home,” says Kristen Morrow, 21, a student from New York who hasn’t decided on a candidate but likes Romney. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why oppose Obama for four years and then not show up?”