At CPAC, It's Rick vs. Mitt

It's Rick vs Mitt in the ring at conservative gathering in Washington.

By SHARE

It probably says something about the state of the GOP presidential primary race that front-runner Mitt Romney was under pressure on Friday to convince the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference that he is conservative enough, and for insurgent rival Rick Santorum to urge the crowd that his uber-conservatism won't hurt him in a general election contest against President Barack Obama in the fall.

[Santorum's Candid Rhetoric Has Liberals Nervous.]

Santorum spoke passionately about the importance of drawing contrasts between the GOP nominee and Obama.

"We're not going to win this election because the Republican candidate has the most money to beat up their opponent and win the election," he said. "It's going to take ideas, vision, contrasts, a record of accomplishment that can go up against the failed policies of Barack Obama."

And Santorum did not let up on his not-so-veiled references to the former Massachusetts governor. He called Romney's Massachusetts health care legislation "the step-child of Obamacare."

He also warned against nominating "someone who would simply give that issue away in the fall; give the issue away of government control of your health."

In his closing, Santorum offered his rationale why GOP voters should cast their ballot for him.

[The Election Consequences of the Contraception Controversy.]

"Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate of a party who the party's not excited about?" he said. "We need conservatives now to rally for a conservative to go into November to excite the conservative base, to pull with that excitement moderate voters and to defeat Barack Obama in the fall."

Romney acknowledged he needed to make the conservative case for himself yet again.

"The pundits and the pollsters tell us we can win this election. But we must tell the nation why we should win," he said. "It is up to us to prove that we are truly ready to step forward and lead this country. This election is not just about getting more votes. Defeating Barack Obama is only one step toward our greater goal of saving America."

Romney, perhaps hoping to blunt the effectiveness of Santorum's populist barbs, told the story of how his father worked his way up to becoming CEO of a major car company and eventual governor of Michigan.

"My Dad grew up poor and never had a chance to finish his college degree," he said. "But he believed in a country where the circumstances of one's birth were not a barrier to achievement. And with hard work, he became the head of a car company and the Governor of the great state of Michigan."

Romney received an extended ovation from the audience when he refused to apologize for the work his business did, which was dubbed "vulture capitalism" by one-time rival Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

[Young Conservatives Don't Care About Gay Marriage.]

"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," he said.

And Romney addressed the issues of gay marriage and abortion during his tenure as Massachusetts governor, painting himself as a conservative champion working against the liberal masses.

He ended his overture with what sounded like a checklist of popular conservative causes.

"Let me be clear: Mine will be a pro-life presidency," he said. "On day one ... I will cut off funding for the United Nations Population Fund, which supports China's barbaric one child policy. I will ensure that organizations like Planned Parenthood get no federal support. And I will reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life."

Email: rmetzler@usnews.com

Twitter: @rebekahmetzler