Mitt Romney was met with an enthusiastic audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference today. As if to make sure the press and conference-goers noted it, he marveled “what a great reception!” before beginning his speech.
The address was a good one, and illustrated how much Romney’s speaking has improved over the past few years. But there was a tinge of self-consciousness in it that belied his confident tone. “We conservatives aren’t just proud to cling to our guns and to our religion,” said Romney. “As conservatives, we are united by a set of core commitments.” The speech said, without actually saying it: “I promise I’m a conservative just like all of you!” The two standing ovations from the audience seemed to indicate that they were convinced, or at the very least, doing a very good job of politely pretending.
The address was heavier on values vote issues than typical Romney speeches, indicating that social conservatism has successfully pushed its way to the forefront of the race for the first time this season. On gay marriage, Romney promised a national defense of marriage act. On abortion, he reiterated his opposition. On religious freedom, he promised to repeal any regulations Obama put into place. The audience cheered him on, but if social issues remain a prominent part of the primary, it’s hard to see how Romney can win this battle against Santorum.
“I was a severely conservative Republican governor,” Romney offered at one point. It was a success – the audience didn’t laugh. As much as the media talks about Romney’s problem connecting with the conservative base, the conservative base seems to have made its peace with his potential nomination. True, he doesn’t rally them the way a more red-blooded conservative might. But they like him, respect him, and if he becomes the Republican nominee they’ll line up behind him.