“I am asking for your honor. To put your honor on the line. Honor is a term that’s not used very often in America anymore. But it’s exactly what’s at stake,” the former Pennsylvania senator and GOP presidential candidate said Friday morning.
“Please, walk out of this gathering and choose the candidate that you believe is the right person to lead this country, not just to victory but to the changes that are necessary for that victory to be won, that you can say ‘I have done my duty and I have kept my honor.’ ”
The message jibed with Mr. Santorum’s broader appeal to some 10,000 activists, volunteers, students, and conservative media members assembled at CPAC, the annual conservative confab in northwest Washington, D.C.
Honor, in Santorum’s case, means a longstanding fidelity to traditional social conservative positions.
“Let’s just take a look at that in the Republican field. Who has the boldest contrast [with President Obama]? Who has the record they can run on?” Santorum said.
Foster Friess, the mutual-fund millionaire who has poured money into a pro-Santorum "super PAC," said in his introduction of Santorum that nominating a true-blooded conservative is the only way forward for the Republican Party.
“I’m supporting Santorum not only because he has the best chance of winning, but maybe the only chance of winning,” Mr. Friess said. “Why don’t we learn? We cannot continue to support these experienced, wonderful warhorses, these [political] veterans? It didn’t work with Bob Dole. It didn’t work with John McCain.”
Without saying the name of his presidential rival Mitt Romney, Santorum then launched into the second half of his appeal: Concerns about his electability are severely misplaced. Santorum ticked down a list of contrasts he says that he has with the former governor of Massachusetts, including health-care policy, social concerns, and energy.
He even took a shot at Mr. Romney’s sizable fundraising and organizational advantages.
“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,” Santorum said. “We’re not going to win this election over a lopsided money advantage – we won’t have one in the fall. President Obama will have more money.... So just think about what it’s going to take. Ideas. Vision. Contrast. A record of contrast that can go up against the failed policies of Barack Obama,” Santorum concluded to raucous applause.
This mix of appeals was right in the bull's-eye for his already-committed backers.
“When you look at Santorum from a pro-life movement [perspective] and see what his history is, he’s carrying less baggage than anybody else,” said Tom Jones, a financial services executive from Williamsburg, Va. “He’s family, he’s morals, and what more can you ask for?”
The question for Santorum, however, according to some CPAC attendees, is less about whether Santorum can win the honor of conservative activists and more about convincing them that he’s got a real shot at winning against Obama.
“When you close your eyes, can you envision him in the Oval Office?” said Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, during a morning briefing. “And that’s the gravitas issue, and his remarks will have to go a long way toward creating a comfort level on not only are his values in place but you’re comfortable that he can be the leader of the free world.”
Those concerns were echoed by Vladimir Plotkin a junior at Emory University in Atlanta. While one of the numerous Santorum backers had thrust a Santorum sign into his hands, Mr. Plotkin said he was undecided about whom to support.
“I agree with [Santorum] completely – but I do not believe he is electable,” Plotkin said.
But could any of the candidates speaking here today change his mind?
“The candidates are not that good,” he said with a bit of a wince. “If Santorum convinces me he’s electable and Romney convinces me I can trust him, then yes, absolutely.”
Today, however, Santorum struck a balance – shaping a vision of an Oval Office contender and reminding his party’s activists that he is one of their own.
“Folks, I’ve been here before. We know each other,” he said. “We’ve worked together in the vineyards; we’ve taken on the tough battles that confront this country. I know you and you know me. And that’s important.”
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