Amid the furor over an Obama administration rule on contraceptives, three GOP presidential candidates hammered away at social issues Friday as they sought to appeal to a major gathering of conservative activists.
Romney described himself as a "severely conservative Republican governor" in a half-hour speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference that used the words "conservative" or "conservatism" 29 times.
"Let me be clear: Mine will be a pro-life presidency," he said, as he outlined other actions that he would take as president, including pushing for a constitutional amendment that would restrict marriage to unions between a man and a woman.
As if to underscore the event's importance to his efforts to reassure a wary conservative base, Romney, reading from a prompter, pledged to "reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life in this country."
Romney's emphasis reflected concerns by some conservatives about the ferocity of his opposition to abortion, since earlier in his political career he backed abortion rights.
The comments by Romney and his competitors, Santorum and Newt Gingrich, reflected not only the interests of the audience but also a shift in the presidential contest since the economy began improving. In his remarks, Santorum said the 2012 election was about something more important than the economy — what he called "foundational principles" and overreach by government.
The ongoing dispute over the Obama administration's healthcare mandate is "not about contraception. It's about economic liberty. It's about freedom of speech. It's about freedom of religion. It's about government control of your life, and it's got to stop!" Santorum said to cheers.
A year ago, at the same event, the hall was more than one-third empty when Santorum spoke. On Friday, when he walked onstage with his wife, Karen, and six of their children, every seat in the room was filled. But the reception for both Romney and Santorum was somewhat less enthusiastic than for current heroes of the conservative movement, such as Florida Rep. Allen West, and for Newt Gingrich, who repeatedly brought members of the largely youthful crowd to its feet.
"We need to teach the Republican establishment a lesson," Gingrich said, after a rare introduction by his wife, Callista, who said she and the former House speaker "have a wonderful partnership."
Taking aim at Obama, whom he criticized in lacerating terms as, variously, a liar, a dangerous radical, and a threat to America's preeminence in the world, Gingrich promised that on his first day in office he will have "repudiated at least 40%" of Obama's accomplishments.
"No money for abortion overseas. Period," he said to applause. "An executive order to repeal every act of religious bigotry by the Obama administration. Period."
If Obama is reelected, "he will wage war on the Catholic Church the morning after his reelection," warned Gingrich, a convert to the Roman Catholic faith, standing before large video screens displaying likenesses of his "dream team" of prominent supporters, including former GOP presidential candidates Herman Cain, Rick Perry and Fred Thompson.
Romney's appearance contrasted sharply with his CPAC speech a year ago, which avoided mention of social issues. Polls show that many of the most conservative Republicans have yet to warm to him, and there was periodic commentary from speakers at the three-day event portraying Romney as a moderate, if not liberal, Republican, which appeared to resonate with more than a few CPAC attendees.
But Romney tried to make the case that he was is far more conservative than many people think.
"I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism," he said, through experiences in his personal life, business career and four years as governor.
Romney portrayed himself as a defender of conservative principles and values "in the most liberal state in the nation." He said he fought to limit the impact of a landmark same-sex marriage ruling by the state's Supreme Court, boasting that he had prevented out-of-state couples from being wed in Massachusetts and making the state "the Las Vegas of gay marriage."
He took shots at Obama, turning a well-known line from the Democrat's 2008 campaign against him. "I know that this president will never get it, but we conservatives aren't just proud to cling to our guns and to our religion," Romney said. "We are also proud to cling to our Constitution."
Four years ago, Romney used an appearance before the same audience to pull out of the presidential contest, two days after a disappointing showing on Super Tuesday. This time, "he felt like, coming in, here was a place he could close the deal with as many people as possible," said longtime conservative strategist David Keene. "Instead of speaking in generalities, he got specific."
Keene, a National Rifle Association official who is nonaligned in the GOP race, said the speech appeared to have achieved its objective of making conservatives more comfortable with the idea of Romney as their nominee. But, he added, "I think he has a ways to go."
Rep. Ron Paul, who won the CPAC straw poll last year and is looking for an inaugural 2012 win when the results of the Maine caucuses are announced Saturday, did not appear at the 39th annual event.