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As CPAC Ends, Contest In Conservatism Goes On

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Friday.
Evan Vucci
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Friday.

Thousands of Republican activists from around the country are in Washington, D.C., listening to party leaders and conservative media stars at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

The backdrop of CPAC, which wraps up Saturday, is the heated presidential race. Three of the remaining candidates spoke Friday. The fourth, Ron Paul, skipped the conference. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin headlined the final session Saturday.

Four years ago, Mitt Romney took his farewell bow at the meeting, leaving the presidential race.

"I feel I have to now stand aside, for our party and for our country," he said.

This year, he arrives at the conference as the front-runner, but with some serious obstacles in the path to his nomination.

'Severely Conservative'

Billionaire Foster Friess, who supports Rick Santorum, highlighted one of those obstacles with a joke: "Recently a conservative, a liberal and a moderate walked into the bar. The bartender says, 'Hi, Mitt!' "

Through this entire campaign, Romney has struggled to prove his conservative authenticity. Many of his critics are especially skeptical of his time as Massachusetts governor.

"I was a severely conservative Republican governor," he said in his speech Friday.

Romney refused to let others define him as a moderate. He hardly uttered a sentence that didn't include the word "conservative" or "conservatism."

"My family, my faith, my businesses — I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism," he said.

This was not the typical campaign speech. This time, he went into great detail about his family history.

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

At every turn, Romney mentioned the "conservative constants" that have shaped his life.

Rival Rebuttals

In their speeches, Romney's rivals weren't buying it. Santorum said Romney's failure to bring Republicans together now could lead to a similar failure in the general election.

"We always talk about how are we going to get the moderates. Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate of a party who the party's not excited about?" he said.

Santorum's sweep of three states this week leaves Newt Gingrich struggling to reclaim his position as the most credible conservative alternative to Romney.

Gingrich delivered the same stump speech Friday that he has given hundreds of times, but what made his appearance unusual was his introduction by his wife, Callista. Often silent, Callista Gingrich told some stories about her husband in an effort to humanize him.

"Newt is an enthusiastic and committed golfer. It's true. He gets in and out of more sand traps than anyone I have ever seen," she said.

Fissures In The GOP

With the next major voting still more than two weeks off, the contest between the candidates is echoed by the conference attendees.

"It's a little scary in a way," said Brandon Standish, who came down from Buffalo, N.Y. "Even being here at this event, there are many cleavages within the overall blanket group of the GOP."

Indeed, there are many flavors of activism to be sampled in the lobby of this conference. There are social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, military hawks, Tea Partiers and everyone else.

In another area, a man walks by in a rhinoceros costume. He takes off the head to introduce himself as David Spielman of the group FreedomWorks.

"The idea behind the rhino costume is there are a lot of Republicans out there who claim to be very conservative when really their voting record shows that they're not," he says, "and that's the term called 'RINO': Republican in name only."

The eventual Republican nominee will need a broader political spectrum of voters if he wants to become president. But for this weekend, and the primary season in general, the calculation is simple: At CPAC, conservatism is good, and the more conservative, the better.

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Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.