Struggling to retain his status as the Republican favorite for the White House, Mitt Romney attempted on Saturday to return to his glory days as CEO of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic organizing committee.

Romney often cites his experience in turning around the overbudget and corrupted Winter Olympics as experience that qualifies him to be president of the United States, and the crowds at two tribute ceremonies in Salt Lake City showed their appreciation.

Boy, I love you guys, Romney told the crowd. What a great experience we had together 10 years ago.

After days of trying to right a faltering campaign, Romney was in good spirits, trading stories with athletes and officials from the games. He did not mention at either event that he is running for president. Republican rival and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, has criticized Romney's management of the Olympics.

Santorum, whose rise in the polls has taken the Romney campaign by surprise, charged Romney with asking for and accepting from Congress tens of millions of dollars to save the endangered games when he was hired to lead the Salt Lake Organizing Committee after a bribery scandal.

He heroically bailed out the Salt Lake City Olympic Games by heroically going to Congress and asking them for tens of millions of dollars to bail out the Salt Lake Olympic Games -- in an earmark, Santorum said. He was trying to turn the tables on Romney, who has accused Santorum of sending millions in earmarked pork-barrel spending back to Pennsylvania when he was in Congress.

One of his strongest supporters, John McCain, called it potentially the worst boondoggle in earmark history, Santorum said Saturday. And now Governor Romney is suggesting, 'Oh, Rick Santorum earmarked,' as he requested almost a half a billion dollars of earmarks as governor of Massachusetts to his federal congressmen and senators. Does the word hypocrisy come to mind?

While the Romney campaign responded to Santorum's attacks, Romney appeared to be off the clock Saturday, genuinely enjoying being back at the site of one of his proudest accomplishments.

The crowd went wild when Romney, joined by figure-skating gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi, was introduced at the EnergySolutions Arena here for A Tribute to Salt Lake 2002 Featuring Stars on Ice. Romney's reception, including a standing ovation, was bigger than what the crowd gave Yamaguchi, the skating champion at the 1992 games.

Because of the strong leadership of the CEO, the fire he lit from within, these games were a tremendous success, Yamaguchi said in introducing Romney.

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Todd Eastham)