WASHINGTON — Republicans vying to replace President Barack Obama jockeyed to outdo each other in proving their conservative fervor on Friday.
Three of the four GOP presidential candidates addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference, emphasizing their fealty to activists on the right. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney declared himself "severely conservative."
That wasn't enough for former Sen. Rick Santorum, who surprised Republicans by winning this week's caucuses in Colorado and Minnesota. Even if Romney goes on to defeat Obama this fall, Santorum told the CPAC crowd, it would be a "hollow victory" because Romney isn't conservative enough.
Romney used his 24-minute speech to say he proved his conservative mettle as Massachusetts governor. "I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism," he said.
Romney said he would cut federal spending like he cut state spending, although he vowed not to touch military budgets.
"I was a conservative governor," he said. "I fought against long odds in a deep blue state. I understand the battles that we, as conservatives, must fight because I have been on the front lines."
But Romney skated past details of his administration that trouble some conservatives, including requiring state residents to obtain health insurance.
Santorum, who spoke ahead of Romney without saying his name, said the former governor's health care record would make it impossible for him to draw needed contrasts with Obama. He said Romney had created "the stepchild of Obamacare."
The Obama-backed 2010 health care law "will crush economic freedom," Santorum said. He urged Republicans not to nominate "someone who would simply give that issue away in the fall."
Even if Romney could win it all, Santorum said, "we will no longer abandon and apologize for the policies and principles that made this country great for a hollow victory in November."
CPAC often brings out edgy comments from candidates. Still, if Republican voters see Santorum's remarks as a hint that he thinks it's more important to be ideologically pure than to beat Obama, it could cause problems in the days ahead.
Romney tried to reassure the audience that antipathy to Obama will energize millions of voters this fall. It was an indirect way to say the lukewarm reception he gets from some conservatives isn't fatal.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich regaled the CPAC audience with his promises to slash government spending painlessly, through business-tested efficiency techniques.
Voting in Maine: Maine's caucuses began Feb. 4 and will continue through today, when the state party will announce the results of the nonbinding presidential straw poll. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has campaigned hard in the state, and Romney has taken steps to shore up his position there.