WASHINGTON: White House hopeful Mitt Romney cast himself as a dedicated conservative on Friday, insisting he's the man who can unite Republicans and defeat President Barack Obama in the "battle for the soul of America."
Romney and his main rivals for the nomination, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and religious conservative Rick Santorum, all made the pilgrimage to the Conservative Political Action Conference here to court the Republican base and lay out their plan to oust Obama in November.
"This country we love is in jeopardy," Romney told a CPAC crowd of thousands.
"I am convinced that if we do our job, if we lead with conviction and integrity, that history will record the Obama presidency as the last gasp of liberalism's great failure and a turning point for a new conservative era."
The upcoming November election, he said, "really is a battle for the soul of America."
Romney's bid to be the party's 2012 standard-bearer has been rattled by concern he cannot close the deal with core conservatives, a charge that was highlighted this week when he lost three nominating contests to Santorum.
But former Massachusetts governor Romney sought to put aside once and for all the lingering doubts about his credentials, saying "I was a severely conservative Republican governor" who cut taxes, balanced the budget and slashed costly government programs.
Romney has been accused of being a flip-flopper on social issues such as abortion, but on Friday he asserted he would be a "pro-life presidency."
He vowed to end US funding to the UN Population Fund, "which supports China's barbaric one child policy," and "reverse every single Obama regulation that attacks our religious liberty and threatens innocent life."
He also refused to shy away from his own status as a multi-millionaire businessman and investor, a quality that may not sit well with some Americans who have been struggling during the economic downturn.
"I'm not ashamed to say I was successful," he said to a standing ovation.
It was a rousing return to CPAC for Romney, who dropped out of the 2008 race for the Republican nomination at that year's CPAC gathering after failing in a bid to rally conservatives against Senator John McCain.
Four years later Romney finds himself the confident if bruised frontrunner, and has the endorsements of several establishment Republicans, including McCain – although he has lacked much conservative backing.
Santorum recalled the 2008 Republican bid in his CPAC speech, saying the candidates listened to advisors who urged them to "abandon our principles to get things done, to win."
Santorum has been derided by critics as too socially conservative to beat Obama in November, but the former senator from Pennsylvania doubled down on his far right positions.
"The lesson we've learned is that we will no longer abandon and apologise for the policies and principles that made this country great for a hollow victory in November," Santorum said to extended applause.
CPAC comes amid a political spat over an Obama plan to require most insurance policies to cover birth control for women.
The proposed rule has drawn outrage from some religious groups, and Republicans used the row to whip up a social issues storm, firing up their conservative political base in an election year.
"It's not about contraception," Santorum said. "It's about economic liberty, it's about freedom of speech, it's about freedom of religion. It's about government control of your lives and it's got to stop."
In a concession, Obama said his government would no longer require religious organizations to offer free contraception on employee health plans, but Gingrich, who converted to Catholicism, warned that Obama could not be trusted when it came to religion.
"This is a man who is deeply committed – if he wins reelection, he will wage war on the Catholic Church the morning after he's reelected," Gingrich said.
While the goal for conservatives is ousting Obama, there is a long road ahead for Republicans.
Romney has won three early victories in state primaries and caucuses and leads in the all-important delegates count, but he slipped up badly this week by losing in Minnesota, Missouri and Colorado to Santorum, who is third in the delegate count, behind Gingrich.
A protracted race could drain Republican resources that many believe would be better spent in a head-to-head matchup with Obama.
The Democrats quickly issued a reaction to the speech by Romney, who they see as the biggest threat to an Obama reelection, saying he distorted his own record as governor in order to pander to a skeptical conservative base.
"Mitt Romney raised taxes and fees, expanded contraception coverage under his healthcare law, and claimed to be pro-choice," the Democratic National Committee said in a statement.
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