Romney ventures into lion's den at CPAC

Mitt Romney is headed into the conservative lion’s den just as concerns about his appeal to the Republican Party’s right flank are reaching a fever pitch.

Romney’s address on Friday before the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) comes days after a triple-whammy defeat by Rick Santorum, a self-described “conservative firebrand” who speaks fluently the language of the GOP’s evangelical base.

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When Romney speaks at CPAC — two hours after Santorum addresses the same crowd — he faces a tough task: He must assuage doubts that he’s a bona fide conservative with broad appeal among the Republican base, without tacking so far to the right that he appears disingenuous or hands President Obama attack lines to use against him in a general election.

In the audience will be a high-octane crowd of party insiders, many of whom are deeply suspicious of the former governor of Massachusetts, whose state has legalized gay marriage, and passed healthcare reform strikingly similar to that of Obama while Romney was governor. And, as his GOP rivals love to point out, he was for abortion rights before he was against them.

“He needs to have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment on abortion where he says why he was wrong before and how his position evolved — as authentically as he possibly can,” said Craig Smith, a former speechwriter for Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. “Then he should argue he’s the only one who can beat Obama. I’d beat up on Obama a lot to end the speech.”

Romney has addressed questions about his stance on abortion, admitting in debates he changed his mind on the issue, and has reiterated that while he’s against gay marriage, he doesn’t want gays to face discrimination. 

Having addressed those contentious issues on previous occasions could let him bypass them before CPAC’s conservative crowd and focus on his strength — his economic message.

In October, Romney addressed military cadets at The Citadel in South Carolina, invoking President Reagan and offering a biblical justification for American exceptionalism.

“God did not create this country to be a nation of followers,” Romney said. “America is not destined to be one of several equally balanced global powers.”

By using Christian themes to discuss the economic policy issues on which he is most comfortable, Romney could speak the language conservatives at CPAC want to hear without painting himself into a box on social issues where he could come across as pandering and risks being booed.

“Start with that patriotism. Link it to Reagan and argue he’s more like Reagan than the other candidates,” said Smith. “Reagan started as a liberal Democrat, saw the light and became a conservative Republican. Reagan gets him off the hook with conservatives for changing.”

Romney’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment on how he would approach the challenge facing him on Friday. But in years past, Romney has attempted to court the conservative movement, with mixed success.

In his 2011 speech to CPAC, where he was warmly received by the crowd, Romney steered clear of the social issues that act as red meat for conservatives but on which he struggles to win their support. He made just a passing reference to healthcare, dropping it in a laundry list of complaints about the European-style approach to government.

Instead, he focused on the one candidate who is virtually guaranteed to seem more liberal than Romney when the two are placed side by side.

“The president is trying to show that he finally gets it — that he really isn’t a liberal after all,” Romney said. “But his idea of conservative economic policy is to invite some corporate CEOs to the White House for an evening of table talk.”

In November, Romney unveiled his economic plan at another conservative cattle call, this one organized by the free-market group Americans for Prosperity. But Romney’s cerebral pitch was overshadowed by Herman Cain, who got the rock-star treatment from the crowd, which chanted along as he sold his 9-9-9 plan.

And Romney was the only major presidential candidate (save for Jon Huntsman) who opted against an October appearance at the Faith and Freedom Coalition Dinner in Iowa, back when the former governor and his team were still on the fence about whether to make a full play for the state and its large swath of socially conservative, evangelical voters.

Santorum ended up besting Romney in Iowa by just a few dozen votes in January, and one month later, has climbed his way out of political oblivion once again to pose the biggest threat to Romney’s hold over the Republican nomination.

The former Pennsylvania senator beat Romney on Tuesday in primary contests in Colorado, Missouri and Minnesota, chipping away at the air of inevitability Romney had built up after winning in New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada. 

It remains to be seen what — if anything — Romney can do on Friday to convince conservative Republicans he’s better positioned than Santorum and the others to champion their cause.

“This may be a sense of the self-identified very conservative voters holding their nose and voting for him either because he’s best against Obama, or because he’s the inevitable nominee,” said Chris Perkins, a Republican pollster. “It’s kind of a stay-the-course deal for Romney.”