Santorum, Romney to face off at CPAC in high-stakes appeal to party faithful

Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum will appear in the same venue Friday for the first time since Santorum handed Romney a three-pronged defeat earlier in the week.

Both will be competing for the support of the same cluster of die-hard conservatives — more than 10,000 in total — who have amassed for the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

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Addressing the annual convention of party faithful is a rite of passage for presidential candidates, but for Santorum and Romney, the stakes are much higher.

Still reeling from his bruising Tuesday loss to Santorum in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri, Romney must convince activists he’s the bona fide conservative he claims to be. For Santorum, the challenge is to win over those whose doubts about his electability against President Obama make them reluctant to bet on a losing horse.

“Romney’s real mission is to win the soul of his party,” said Alex Castellanos, a GOP strategist who advised Romney’s 2008 presidential campaign. “Santorum doesn’t even need to run negatives against Romney, which is telling.”

An informal survey of a few-dozen conference attendees conducted by The Hill on Thursday found about equal excitement for Romney and Santorum. Almost no one said they were waiting to hear Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul, who are also speaking Friday.

But Romney’s campaign had no visible presence Thursday, while Santorum supporters could be seen in almost every corner. Santorum’s iconic sweater vests were for sale — emblazoned with his name — for a minimum donation of $50, and supporters handed out literature dubbing him both the most electable and the most conservative candidate in the race.

“The hero worship is not as vivid in this one as we have seen in some of them,” said former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R), a former presidential candidate who has endorsed Romney. “Instead, there’s a real concern about liberties and opportunities and jobs and forward direction for the country.”

Complicating Romney’s and Santorum’s efforts to decide which boxes to check and which to avoid in their dueling speeches — the two will appear less than three hours apart — is the sundry list of somewhat fringe issues that attract various constituencies to CPAC.

In one corner of the hotel Thursday, activists at a National Rifle Association booth were using life-sized, neon orange rifles to play the 1990s-era Duck Hunt game on Nintendo. In another corner, a group of Christian Zionists were telling anyone who would listen why the Palestinians are an invented people.

One man in colonial garb and a feather-adorned cap waved the Galston Flag in support of Tea Party principles, while a man dressed as a cowboy-turned-cop advocated for the legalization of marijuana.

But they all seemed to agree on one thing.

“The ultimate goal is to beat Obama,” said Mary Sewart, a college student supporting Romney. “We want a candidate who can actually do that.”

As activists heard Thursday from some of the biggest names in Republican politics — John Boehner, Rick Perry and Marco Rubio, among others — Romney was secretly meeting elsewhere in the hotel with about 30 top conservative leaders, CNN reported. Santorum, meanwhile, was holding rallies across Oklahoma, one of the Super Tuesday states where he and Gingrich stand the best chance to outperform Romney.

For Romney, the task Friday will be one of the greatest he has faced in his second bid for the White House: The former Massachusetts governor must overcome fresh doubts raised by his losses in such conservative states as Iowa, South Carolina and the three Santorum won Tuesday that he can appeal to the type of red-meat conservatives who flock every year to CPAC.

“Romney needs a big idea to rally folks around,” said Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “Mitt Romney is the most electable, but he hasn’t given anyone in the base or independents any reason to vote for him. That’s why he needs that big idea. ‘Believe in America’ just ain’t going to cut it.”

— Cameron Joseph contributed.