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I am 'severely conservative,' Romney to CPAC

Bryn Weese, Senior Washington Correspondent

Mitt Romney is boasting about his "severely conservative" bona fides to convince the Republican base he is not a moderate.

Romney, Rick Santorum, and Newt Gingrich all addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Friday, and the stakes were high for all of them given this three-day gathering of thousands of conservatives comes at a pivotal time in the GOP nomination race.

CPAC also includes an influential straw poll, which Romney won in 2008 just before he bowed out of the race.

The poll results, to be released Saturday, could reshape the nomination race again.

Santorum, Romney's new rival atop the GOP field, tried to paint himself as the candidate best suited to beat President Barack Obama by providing the starkest contrast to him.

"We're not going to win with money. We're going to win with contrasts. We're going to win with ideas," Santorum told thousands of attendees at CPAC. "We need conservatives now to rally for a conservative to go into November, to excite the conservative base, to pull with that excitement moderate voters, and to defeat Barack Obama in the fall."

Romney, still reeling from three losses this week to Santorum in the midwest, gave a strong speech highlighting his conservative record as a successful businessman and governor of Massachusetts, which he called the "most liberal" state in the country.

His candidacy has been dogged by concerns he has changed his mind on important social conservative issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, and introduced health-care reform in Massachusetts that paved the way for Obama's health-care reform federally, which Republicans abhor.

"I fought against long odds in a deep blue state, but I was a severely conservative Republican governor," Romney said. "I have been on the front lines and I expect to be on the front lines again.

"I did things conservatism is designed for -- I started new businesses and turned around broken ones, and I am not ashamed to say that I was very successful at it," Romney told crowd, earning him a standing ovation. "I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism."

For Gingrich, his task at CPAC was significant. Since his big win in South Carolina last month, Santorum has had a series of wins that have pushed Gingrich to the sidelines and out of the spotlight in recent weeks.

He railed against not only Obama, but also the "Republican establishment" Friday, framing himself -- a member of Congress for more than 20 years -- as an outsider looking to "rebuild America, not manage its decay."

"The Washington and Wall St. establishment pile on top of me," he said, saying they were afraid of his "bold" ideas. "This campaign is a mortal threat to their grip on power.

"We need to teach the Republican establishment a lesson."

CPAC, now in it's 39th year, is one of the largest and most influential conservative gatherings in the country. It's lineup of speakers includes a who's who in conservative America. Former Alaska governor and Tea Party darling Sarah Palin will give the keynote address Saturday.

Ron Paul is not attending the conference, opting instead to campaign in Maine ahead of that state's week-long caucuses that wrap up Saturday.