With the Republican primary at a crossroads, three presidential candidates came to the nation’s largest gathering of conservative activists on Friday to try to beat the rap keeping them from the nomination.
Mitt Romney, the front-runner who nevertheless faces resistance from the conservative grassroots, declared his governorship of Massachusetts “severely conservative.’’ Rick Santorum, the scrappy underdog with little support from the GOP establishment, insisted money won’t win elections. Newt Gingrich, the hyperbolic former House speaker who trails Santorum in delegates, scoffed at critics who dismiss his proposals as “unrealistic’’ when in fact they are simply “bold.’’
All delivered solid, thoughtful speeches to the Conservative Political Action Conference. But at a time when Republican voters are itching for clarity, none of the candidates broke new ground or brought down the house. The questions that loomed over their campaigns before they walked into the Washington hotel ballroom remained after they left. That Gingrich seemed to incite the audience more than his rivals with more specific prescriptions and rebellious rhetoric was typical of the arc of his campaign; he is at his best when facing the longest odds.
Of course, someone will accept the nomination at the convention in late August in Tampa. Which means that if Republicans want to take back the White House, they will have to rally, if not behind their less-than-perfect nominee, then around the broader cause of depriving President Obama a second term. That’s certainly possible, considering the level of antipathy in this crowd to what is described as a clumsily expanding government infringing on free enterprise and personal freedom. “He is the conservative movement’s top recruiter,’’ Romney quipped. Later in his speech, he drew applause for calling Obama “the poster child for the arrogance of government.’’
None of the presidential candidates gave the Obama administration credit for backtracking Friday on plans to require church-affiliated institutions to cover birth control in their employee health insurance plans. The decision had become a rallying cry for the leadership of the Catholic Church and the Republican Party, which viewed it as an attack on religious liberty.
“If [Obama] wins reelection, he will wage war on the Catholic Church the morning after,’’ Gingrich said. “We cannot trust him, and we need to make sure the country knows who he really is.’’
The next window into the Republican electorate’s mindset will come on Saturday evening, when the results of the Maine caucus will be announced. The fourth candidate in the race, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, is scheduled to campaign there during the day; his son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, spoke on his behalf at the conference on Thursday. Bigger tests come at the end of the month, when Arizona and Michigan hold their primaries, followed by a handful of contests on March 6, Super Tuesday. Republican voters may have to wait until then, or even longer, to get a clear picture of their nominee.
The timing of the conference raised the stakes for each of the candidate appearances. The Republican primaries, some of the most unpredictable in decades, took yet another unexpected twist on Tuesday when Santorum scored victories in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, injecting his flagging campaign with fresh momentum, knocking Gingrich off center stage, and reviving doubts about Romney’s appeal to the most conservative wing of the party.
But the limited amount of campaigning in those states and miniscule turnouts allowed Romney to downplay the results and left open the question of whether Santorum can go the distance with little campaign infrastructure or money.
Under pressure to make the sale to conservative voters, Romney tried mightily to persuade the audience that he is one of them. “As conservatives, we’re united by a set of core convictions,’’ he said. His own experience in the business world, his marriage of 42 years, his five sons, his faith—“these conservative constants have shaped my life,’’ Romney said. He insisted he was “on the same page and the same verse’’ as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, who has proposed a sweeping Medicare overhaul, though months ago he had withheld a full-throated endorsement.
Romney also talked about how as governor, he opposed same-sex marriage, cloning, and abortion rights. “I was a severely conservative Republican governor,’’ he said.
Brad Bailey, a 38-year-old restaurant owner and City Council member in Nassau Bay, Texas, remained undecided. “If you have to sell your conservatism this late in the game, something is wrong,’’ Bailey said. “He just doesn’t connect with me, though I came away feeling more impressed with him than I have.’’
Audience members talked about their admiration for the former corporate executive’s success in the business world, but even those who said they were likely to vote for Romney were lukewarm about him. “I thought it was a workmanlike speech that hit all the right points and said all the things he wanted me to hear,’’ said Terry Scout, a 65-year-old college professor from Chestertown, Md. “I wasn’t on my feet, but I’m basically for him.’’
Romney did get a standing ovation for vowing to repeal Obama’s health care legislation. Earlier on Friday, Santorum sought to remind the audience that Romney had spearheaded a health care program that like Obama’s plan, required people to buy insurance.
Without mentioning Romney by name, Santorum referred to the candidate “who has supported the stepchild of 'Obamacare,' the person in Massachusetts who built the largest government-run health care system in the U.S., someone who would simply give that issue away in the fall.”
The former senator from Pennsylvania also took a shot at Romney’s recent comment that he was “not concerned about the very poor.’’ Santorum has tried to position himself as a champion of blue-collar workers, although his fiscal plan would also cut taxes for the wealthiest Americans. “We care to make sure that every American has the opportunity to rise, that the ladder goes down, not just to those who might be voting for us, but yes, the very poor,’’ he said.
Alex Pirro, 22, a student at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill), said he was leaning toward Santorum. “I’m just not sure if he’s electable, if he can get enough votes,’’ Pirro said, repeating a widespread concern about the candidate known best for his staunch opposition to abortion and gay rights.
Some participants also said his speeches tend to be flat. “You’re waiting for something more,” said Christy Dollison, a 49-year-old operations manager for a marketing in Ohio, a state poised to play a key role on Super Tuesday.
The speaking styles of the candidates are studies in contrast. Romney gave polished speech, blasting Obama’s economic and foreign-policy agenda while touting his own conservative credentials. Santorum seemed to deliver his remarks extemporaneously, in keeping with his style on the campaign trail, where he often gives the kind of rambling responses heard on the Senate floor. Gingrich is probably the best at bringing crowds to their feet. On Friday, he cast himself as a longtime rebel with the conservative cause.
“All of you have seen the Washington establishment and Wall Street establishment piled up on top of me,’’ Gingrich said. “This campaign is a threat to their grip on the establishment because we intend to change Washington, not accommodate it.’’
Reaching toward the audience with outstretched arms at the end of his speech, Gingrich proclaimed, “This is the year to reset the country in a decisive, bold way. We need to teach the Republican establishment a lesson.’’
That went over well in the hall, but upon reflection, some voters said they would rather teach Obama a lesson.
“Newt Gingrich always gives a rousing speech. He was on fire,” said Dan Arica, 65, who works in direct-mail fundraising in Front Royal, Va. “But he tends to be erratic. Every now and again he gets some idea and he runs away with it, and then stands there embarrassed.”
Alex Roarty and Naureen Khan contributed contributed to this article.