Romney faced his toughest constituency Friday—his party’s conservative base.
Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney focused on shoring up his right flank when he took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, hitting social conservative themes he rarely mentions on the campaign trail.
With plenty of skeptical conservatives in the CPAC crowd, Romney described his record as governor of Massachusetts as “severely conservative,” highlighting his opposition to same-sex marriage during his one term.
Romney also labeled his GOP rivals creatures of Washington telling the crowd, “I am 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,” he said in a direct swipe at former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum.
Romney’s biggest applause line came when he told the crowd he wasn’t ashamed of his business success.
The former governor took the stage after a well-received speech from Santorum, who hit Romney repeatedly on healthcare. And Gingrich’s speech, which was laced with red meat for the conservative base, came after Romney's and was highlighted by a challenge to “teach the Republican establishment a lesson.”
For Romney, CPAC was a golden opportunity to reassure conservative doubters, especially after Santorum’s three state caucus sweep on Tuesday. We hit the CPAC floor post-speech to see how Romney fared, and while he didn’t exactly change the minds of any Santorum or Gingrich supporters, the consensus was that they’ll accept Romney as the nominee, even if they’re not thrilled about it.
“After all the debates, he’s sharpened his skills some and I think if he was the nominee, I could get behind him,” Santorum backer Myron Stoltfus said of Romney.
Gingrich supporter Maria Lima was less kind to GOP frontrunner, but said she’d ultimately back him in the fall if her candidate doesn’t get the nod.
“I thought it was a campaign speech, which I kind of resented,” she said. “I’ll vote for [Romney], but I couldn’t campaign for him.”
“He didn’t say enough to overcome his record,” argued Santorum backer David Morsberger. “I believe Santorum connects more to my conservative values and he has a very conservative record.”
Just as the Romney camp has been doing for weeks, many of his backers in the CPAC crowd have been beating the electability drum over the past two days, making the case that the former governor has the best shot at winning the White House this fall.
Romney supporter Dan Couladis called the former governor “conservative enough” and said he represents the party’s “best opportunity to beat Obama.”
“I know a lot of people here want the conservative movement to take a big step forward,” said Couladis. “The first step is to beat Obama.”
Shane D’Aprile contributed.