WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Presidential candidate Mitt Romney struggled at the CPAC 2012 Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday to connect with Republican voters who either cannot relate to him or worry that he is not conservative enough.
In a speech at the American Conservative Union event at the Marriott Wardman Park hotel, the former Massachusetts governor made a strong effort to appeal to his right-leaning audience and maintain his front-runner status in the Republican Party's presidential-nomination race.
That effort included saying the word conservative about 30 times. It came up in lines like, We conservatives aren't just proud to cling to our guns and to our religion.
Similarly, Romney said, On my watch, we fought hard and prevented Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage. ... I was a severely conservative Republican governor.
The high from Romney's sweeping win in Nevada caucuses last Saturday -- when he garnered 50.1 percent of the vote and 14 delegates -- largely dissipated on Tuesday when rival Rick Santorum surged from the bottom of the polls to a triple victory in Minnesota, Missouri, and Colorado. Although the nonbinding contests awarded no delegates to any of the candidates, Santorum's symbolic wins were evident at CPAC 2012, as hundreds of fans coming out to support the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania.
Three polls whose results were reported during the past couple of days also indicate that conservatives still have not settled on Romney as their candidate, although he has won the most delegates so far. Public Policy Polling tweeted Santorum was the clear winner in a poll it put out Thursday. Meanwhile, Fox News and Gallup polls put the two candidates neck to neck, according to Political Wire.
CPAC attendees generally cited two major weaknesses in the front-runner: his record and his sincerity.
Mitt Romney doesn't have the small-town appeal of Rick Santorum. He doesn't have the exploding confidence of Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. And he doesn't have the sense of humor of Ron Paul, the congress member from Texas. Romney isn't the type of guy people most people would like to have a beer with, which isn't possible in the first place because, as a Mormon, the candidate doesn't drink. Robotic and stiff are adjectives that critics often bring up.
U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., who incited thunderous applause with his fiery CPAC speech, told the International Business Times that Romney should just be genuine, if he wanted to reinvigorate his base.
Steven Rosenberg, a personal-injury attorney from New York who supports Romney, thought that Romney might be easier to connect with if he would emulate Allen West a little bit more.
David Zere, a commercial real-estate broker from New York's Long Island, suggested Romney stick his finger in an outlet and get some energy going.
Energy was just one of the reasons for Romney's lukewarm reception. Conservatives who were unhappy with his record as governor of Massachusetts said they were still unconvinced after his speech. Romney has spent much of his campaign distinguishing the health-care plan he instituted in Massachusetts from the one Obama instituted in the United States. Santorum called Romney's plan the stepchild of Obamacare. Romney has repeatedly insisted he is pro-life, but critics keep bringing up a 2002 statement in which Romney said he would protect Massachusetts pro-choice laws.
Even with all the criticism, most CPAC attendees still said they thought the front-runner was a good candidate and would vote for him if he won the Republican nomination. Later in the afternoon, a pro-Romney rally broke out in the center of the hotel, showing that fans of the candidate were making an effort to be vocal.
All the criticism about Romney's record and personality bothered Alex Miller, a student from George Washington University handing out pro-Romney posters. He said the candidate's speech shows he's as conservative as you can get.
I don't think he has a problem with being energetic whatsoever. I think you can even tell by this conference alone and the amount of people in there that the energy he has to bring this many people together, Miller said. And as for conservative, I don't understand that argument, either. He's a leading conservative today. He's made his position very clear on pro-life and immigration.