Mitt Romney, the only candidate with the money and organization to run a topflight national campaign, leads in the delegate count, but enthusiasm for him seems muted in the GOP base. On Saturday, Romney received a boost when he won the annual CPAC straw poll with 38 percent of the 3,408 votes cast.
And in Maine's GOP caucus, Romney managed a narrow win Saturday over Ron Paul, the only other candidate who campaigned aggressively in the state.
A resurgent Rick Santorum, a social conservative, beat Romney in three states last week, sparking enthusiasm and renewed interest at the conference. Newt Gingrich, who had been the top challenger to Romney and then faded after getting blown out in Florida, was not the subject of much buzz at CPAC, though he was warmly received late Friday afternoon, when he gave a speech filled with conservative applause lines.
In the Saturday straw poll, Santorum drew 31 percent, Gingrich was third with 15 percent, and Paul won 12 percent. Paul won the straw poll in the previous two years.
"I've been all over the map," said John Garvey, 64, an investor from Palm Beach, Fla., who raved Friday about Santorum's speech to the conference. "In marketing, you have to have a differential point, and Rick provides a great contrast to Obama, a clear message, and he has a great vision. Until he had the trifecta, I wasn't sure he could win, but now I'm about 90 percent converted."
In 2008, Garvey supported Romney, but not this time.
"He's smart, but he's a disaster as a candidate," Garvey said. "Fifty-nine points on an economic plan does not a vision make. He's a technocrat."
In his speech, Santorum argued that he would provide the best contrast to Obama. Although he did not name his rival, the former Pennsylvania senator said the Massachusetts health-care overhaul that Romney signed into law, which requires that individuals buy coverage and shares other features of the national law, would cede an important issue to the president.
Santorum also took on Romney's advantages of financing and supposed appeal to independents and swing voters. "Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate of a party whom the party is not excited about?" Santorum said. "We are not going to win this election because the Republican candidate has the most money to beat up their opponent."
He reminded the thousands of conservatives in attendance that he had been coming to CPAC for years and was one of them, and urged them not to settle for another establishment choice.
"We will no longer abandon and apologize for the policies and principles that made this country great, for a hollow victory in November," Santorum said. "As conservatives and tea-party folks . . . we are not just wings of the Republican Party. We are the Republican Party."
Even the Wyoming billionaire who is financing a pro-Santorum super PAC, Foster Friess, pressed the point with a joke when introducing the candidate: "A liberal, a moderate, and a conservative walk into a bar. And the bartender says, 'Hi, Mitt.' "
Santorum's rise has coincided with the reemergence in recent weeks of some of the culture-war social issues he has been identified with, issues that had been subsumed in the concern over the economy for most of the campaign so far.
Recent days have seen a controversy over the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure organization's pulling grants from Planned Parenthood, before reversing itself amid an outcry, and the Obama administration's requiring that religious-affiliated institutions such as hospitals and schools provide health insurance plans for their workers that offer free contraceptives - a move the president modified Friday. In addition, a federal appeals court ruled unconstitutional California's voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.
How such issues might play in November is unclear. Any slippage in job numbers could yank the subject right back to the economy, an issue that seems to favor the businessman part of Romney's resumé.
Yet Romney was at pains to defend his conservative bona fides at the conference, saying he had been fighting his entire life for the values that his listeners hold dear.
"I know conservatism, because I have lived conservatism," Romney told a jammed ballroom, earning standing ovations six times. To emphasize the point, he used conservative or conservatism 24 times in a 20-minute speech. At one point, Romney even described himself as having been a "severely conservative" governor.
He has had to deal with persistent concerns from the right that he has been too moderate, particularly on access to abortion - which he once supported and now opposes - and gay marriage.
Romney stressed how he had fought for a stay to block implementation of the Massachusetts Supreme Court's 2004 decision legalizing same-sex marriage. Then, Romney said, he led the fight for an amendment to the state constitution banning it, and prohibited out-of-state couples from taking advantage of the law to wed in the state.
"On my watch, we fought hard and kept Massachusetts from becoming the Las Vegas of gay marriage," he said.
He also said he had vetoed a bill that would have led to "embryo farming" for human cloning and fought bills that would have allowed young teenagers access to morning-after contraceptive pills, which Romney called "abortion-inducing drugs."
"I was fighting against big odds in a deep blue state, but I was a severely conservative Republican governor," Romney said.
Conference attendee Eula Thomas said Romney was "the only person who can turn the country around," because of his experience building businesses as an investment banker. "He earned his money, didn't get it out of the taxpayers' pockets," she said. And fiscal issues, particularly the national debt, are paramount to her at this point.
"Anybody who has built and run a business is a fiscal conservative," said Thomas, 58, a registered nurse from Cape Coral, Fla., who founded a hospital-staffing company that grew to 2,000 employees before being sold to a larger firm. "That's what the country needs, a person who understands money, who gets that you don't continue to spend what you don't have."
Santorum, she said, "is an excellent candidate with good values, but I just don't think he has the experience we need right now. If somebody doesn't turn this country around, I am worried we won't have an America anymore."
Gingrich, for his part, touted his own conservative bona fides by telling the conference, "You have seen how the elites in Washington and on Wall Street have piled on top of me." Paul did not attend the event.
In five of the nine GOP nominating contests so far, turnout has been down from that of 2008. Romney lost two states to Santorum - Colorado and Missouri - that he carried four years ago. Democratic pollster Joel Benenson noted that even in Nevada, where Romney had his best showing, his vote total was down 27 percent from 2008.
"The grinding, negative nature of Romney's candidacy, which has relied heavily on attacks on his opponents, has served to erode his standing and GOP enthusiasm overall," Benenson said in a memo released by the Obama campaign last week. "As Republican discontent with their presidential nominees heightens, the supposed enthusiasm advantage among Republican voters has been thrown into reverse."
From the president's point of view, that's a hopeful analysis of the turnout numbers. But some Republicans at CPAC expressed similar concerns.
"I want to wake up and have this primary be over - it's a train wreck," one conservative leader said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There's just no enthusiasm for any of these candidates right now."
Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent