Mitt Romney is a conservative. He said so himself, over and over again in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington today.
The Republican presidential hopeful, ahead in the delegate race but smarting from losses on Tuesday in three state contests, described himself as a "severely conservative Republican governor" and a businessman whose principles were rooted in his family and his faith.
The speech to hundreds of CPAC attendees, also streamed online, was seen as a significant opportunity for the former Massachusetts governor to reset his relationship with the party base after a more intense period in the primary campaign in which his GOP rivals have ratcheted up their criticism of his record.
After a warm greeting from the audience packed into a large hotel ballroom, and with flashbulbs popping throughout, Romney said he wanted to "reaffirm what it means to be a conservative and why this must be our greatest hour."
According to an advanced draft of the speech provided by his campaign, he used the word "conservative" or a variation thereof two dozen more times in his 20-minute speech.
"I know this president will never get it, but we conservatives aren’t just proud to cling to our guns and to our religion. We are also proud to cling to our Constitution," he said.
He said he was the only candidate in the race who had never worked in Washington. Too often, he said, people have gone to the nation's capital and fallen under its "spell," becoming "creatures of Washington."
"I don't have old scores to settle or decades of cloakroom deals I have to defend," he said. "Any politician that tries to convince you that they hated Washington so much that they just couldn't leave, well that's the same politician that will sell you a bridge to nowhere."
Though he claimed his primary background was that of a businessman, Romney spent a considerable portion of his remarks defending his record as governor. He said he took on "sacred cows" as he worked to slash state spending. And on social issues, he fought to limit the fallout of his state's Supreme Court decision to allow same-sex marriage.
By working to bar out-of-state couples from flooding the state after the ruling, Romney said he "prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage."
As the Obama administration took steps to adjust a proposed mandate that health insurance plans cover birth control, Romney noted that as governor he "defended the Catholic Church's right to serve their community in ways that were consistent with their conscience." If elected, Romney said he would "reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life."
Anticipating the attack, Democrats said that while Romney claims to have worked to repeal a similar mandate that was on the books in Massachusetts, there's no record of any steps he took to do so.
Romney's campaign, meanwhile, worked to deflect an attack earlier in the day from Santorum, who had argued that the Massachusetts healthcare law was a liability in the general election, and paved the way for "Obamacare."
Spokeswoman Andrea Saul said Santorum "conveniently left out of his speech the fact that he is an ardent defender of earmarks" and served at a time when spending exploded.
"There are a lot of questions about his record that are still left unanswered," Saul said.