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Romney boasts of 'severely conservative' record in CPAC speech

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks to a crowd at CPAC, Friday, while attempting to sway conservative voters with his plan to turn around the US economy.

 

Dogged by his struggles to win over conservative primary voters, Mitt Romney stressed the depth of his ideological commitment to conservatism in an address Friday to an annual gathering of party activists.

"I fought against long odds in a deep blue state, but I was a severely conservative Republican governor," Romney said in a boast to attendees of this year's Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.

The former Massachusetts governor took pains to emphasize the most appealing parts of his record in a speech just after noon. Romney mentioned some variation of the word "conservative" 24 times (at least according to prepared remarks), and won applause for his laundry list of promises to undo President Obama's policies.

"I did things conservatism is designed for – I started new businesses and turned around broken ones. And I am not ashamed to say that I was very successful at it," Romney told activists, hitting on a biographic note that won him the first of several standing ovations in the speech. "I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism."

The address seemed carefully crafted in light of the difficulties Romney has faced in the first month and a half of the primary calendar. He lost the South Carolina primary in January thanks to conservatives' rallying behind Newt Gingrich, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum scored a series of upsets over Romney just this past Tuesday with victories in the Colorado and Minnesota caucuses and a non-binding Missouri primary.

Santorum addressed the CPAC crowd this morning, during which he touched on familiar themes, urging Republicans not to settle for a moneyed candidate or one who's perceived as electable -- a veiled shot at Romney, behind whom the GOP establishment has rallied.

RELATED: Santorum draws contrasts with GOP rivals

Gingrich, the former House speaker, is likely to voice a similar argument in remarks to CPAC later Friday.

But Romney also had his own response to his two most direct Republican challengers ready to go.

"I am the only candidate in this race, Republican or Democrat, who has never worked a day in Washington.... As conservatives, you’ve learned to be skeptical of this city and its politicians, and right you are," he said, alluding to Santorum and Gingrich's long tenures in Congress. "And let me tell you, any politician who tries to convince you that they hated Washington so much that they just couldn’t leave, well, that’s the same politician who will try to sell you a Bridge to Nowhere."

But most of Romney's speech was oriented toward selling himself to conservatives.

Romney spoke of his battles with a Democratic state legislature in Massachusetts to erase a $3 billion budget deficit, and his battles for socially conservative positions as governor.

"On my watch, we fought hard and prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage," he said of his work to undercut a state Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriages.

His "severely conservative" line was ad-libbed, inserted by Romney on the spot on top of his prepared remarks, which he read from a teleprompter.

Romney also hit on a variety of pledges, not least of which was his vow to repeal Obama's health care reform law. Conservatives have met Romney with suspicion on the issue because of the similarities between the health reform law Romney signed in Massachusetts, by which he's stood, and Obama's federal health reform.

Romney also promised to govern as a "pro-life" president and stand for a strong national defense. He also promised reforms to entitlements like Medicare and Social Security, as well.

"This election is a defining moment for our generation and for the conservative movement," he said. "Make no mistake – we have an opportunity for greatness, but with that opportunity comes defining responsibility. We cannot use this election to refight past battles or reward our friends. I know that the fundamental change this moment demands will take fresh, bold conservative leadership with real-world solutions based on real-world experience."