Ode to conservatism at CPAC, Romney-style

For Mitt Romney, the Conservative Political Action Conference was a bit of a lion's den. Romney is seen as the moderate in the presidential race, which is why he stressed his conservative credentials.

Evan Vucci/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney pauses while addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Friday, Feb. 10, 2012.

Mitt Romney entered the conservative lion’s den and lived to tell about it.

In fact, in the teetering GOP frontrunner’s address to a ballroom full of conservative activists Friday, he wielded the word “conservative” (or a variation) as if it were his shield – 29 times in a 26-minute speech.

“I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism,” Mr. Romney told the crowd at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference.

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He told us about being raised in a home that was “shaped and rooted in conservative values.” He talked, as always, about his 42-year marriage to Ann, their five sons, and their faith: “These conservative constants have shaped my life.”  In business, he said, “if you're not fiscally conservative, you're bankrupt.”

But it was Romney’s time as governor of liberal Massachusetts – the trickiest part of his resume for a Republican presidential candidate – that merited an upgrade: “I was a severely conservative Republican governor,” he said, asserting that he “fought against long odds in a deep blue state.”

“Somebody please buy him a thesaurus,” long-shot candidate Buddy Roemer suggested via Twitter, over the phrase “severely conservative.”

Romney’s brand of conservatism in Massachusetts may need elaboration, but “severe” doesn’t come to mind. “Moderate” may be more like it. Romney, after all, authored the health-care reform that served as the model for President Obama’s. It was his signature accomplishment, but he didn’t mention it at CPAC. Instead, he emphasized fiscal conservatism.

“We cut taxes 19 times and balanced the budget all four years,” he said to cheers. “I cast over 800 vetoes, and I cut entire programs. I erased a $3 billion budget shortfall and left office by putting in place over $2 billion in a rainy-day fund.”

Then there are the social issues, which he emphasized in his unsuccessful 2008 campaign and has largely ignored this time around.  But at CPAC, they were all the rage – especially in light of the brouhaha between the Obama administration and the Catholic Church over the mandate that religious employers include birth control in their health coverage.

Mr. Obama announced an “accommodation” right before Romney was due to speak. Church-affiliated employers now don’t have to cover birth control. It is the insurers that now face the mandate to provide contraception – for free.

Romney didn’t mention the controversy, but he alluded to it.

“I will reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life in this country,” he said. It was the final point in a litany of promises aimed at proving he would be a “pro-life president.”

So how did Romney do? Scott Kamp, one of the legions of college students in attendance at CPAC, said he’s a Newt Gingrich fan, because he’s such a “great speaker.” But Mr. Kamp thought Romney’s speech was “pretty good,” and he would happily vote for him for president.  

“He did pander a bit,” said Kamp, who attends Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. “But he has to do that here.”

There’s no doubt that CPAC 2012 wasn’t Romney’s crowd, in contrast to 2008, when he was seen as the conservative alternative to eventual nominee John McCain. This was Rick Santorum’s year at CPAC – social conservatism is his bread and butter, and the crowd loved his speech. He’s favored to win the CPAC straw poll; the results will be announced Saturday afternoon, including a pick for vice president.

Some attendees noted that Romney didn’t have a table in the vendors’ area, while Mr. Santorum and Mr. Gingrich did. (Ron Paul, who won the 2010 and 2011 CPAC straw polls, didn’t attend this year, and didn’t have as large a contingent in attendance as the previous two years.)

But there seemed to be plenty of folks wearing Romney stickers, and in a burst of excitement, a parade of chanting, Romney-sign-carrying college students wended their way through a crowded hallway at the Marriott Wardman Park late Friday afternoon – well after Romney had left the building. It felt a bit like Occupy, conservative-style.

One sure vote against Romney at CPAC was actress and comedian Victoria Jackson, late of Saturday Night Live. She’s now a big tea party activist, and a fan of Santorum. “He would base his decisions on the Bible,” she says. Would she ever be willing to vote for Romney? “No,” she says. “I don’t think he’s a conservative.”

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