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Republican Presidential Contenders Woo Conservatives

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Feb. 10, 2012, in Washington.

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Feb. 10, 2012, in Washington.

In U.S. presidential politics, the top Republican White House contenders were in Washington Friday making a pitch for support to a leading group of conservative activists.

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference provided a venue for three of the four remaining Republican candidates to make the case that they are true conservatives who can defeat President Barack Obama in the November election.

There was a lot of interest in the appearance by former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania. Santorum was fresh off his surprise victories earlier in the week in Missouri, Minnesota and Colorado and he argued that only a true conservative Republican would offer voters a choice in November.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are not going to win with money," he said. "We are going to win with contrast. We are going to win with ideas. We are going to win by making Barack Obama and his failed policies the issue in this race!”

Santorum did not refer to rival Mitt Romney by name, but his references to money and more moderate political positions clearly indicated he was talking about the former Massachusetts governor.

Santorum’s victories in the latest nominating contests came at Romney’s expense and have raised fresh doubts about Romney’s ability to lock down the Republican nomination after earlier victories in New Hampshire, Florida and Nevada.

During his remarks Romney emphasized his background as a conservative businessman who stuck to conservative principles as governor of the Democratic-leaning state of Massachusetts.

“This election really is about a battle for the soul of America and it is going to come down to a choice, a choice between whether we want a nation to be of and by Washington or a nation of and by a free people, and we conservatives believe in freedom and free people and free enterprises!,” said Romney.

Former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich also addressed the conservative group. Gingrich has done poorly in recent contests but portrayed himself as a true conservative who can defeat the president in November.

“And that is why the Republican establishment, whether it is in 1996 or in 2008, can’t win a presidential campaign because they don’t have the toughness, they don’t have the commitment and they don’t have the philosophy necessary to build a majority in this country,” he said.

Texas Congressman Ron Paul also remains in the Republican race but he did not speak at the conservative gathering.

Political experts say Mitt Romney’s recent stumbles in the caucus and primary voting suggest he still has problems winning over conservative Republican voters.

Larry Sabato directs the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

“It is that conservative base having buyer’s remorse, having second thoughts about Mitt Romney just as he was being installed by the ‘punditocracy’ as the potential or likely Republican nominee. And they are saying slow down, let’s think about this thing again,” said Sabato.

But other analysts argue that Romney’s well-funded and well-organized campaign still makes him the favorite to win the Republican Party nomination, even though it could take months.

“I do think Mitt Romney is somewhat stronger among conservatives than he is sometimes given credit for," said John Fortier, who is with the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington. "I think he suffers from a bit of a lack of enthusiasm for him, but I don’t think most of the [party] base thinks he would be a very bad nominee. They are still considering their options and have some preferred choices.”

The next major test for the remaining contenders will come at the end of the month when Arizona and Michigan will hold primaries on the same day.

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    Jim Malone

    Jim Malone has served as VOA’s National correspondent covering U.S. elections and politics since 1995. Prior to that he was a VOA congressional correspondent and served as VOA’s East Africa Correspondent from 1986 to 1990. Jim began his VOA career with the English to Africa Service in 1983.