Gerald Herbert, Associated Press
ATLANTA — Mitt Romney still can't seem to win over the bulk of the conservatives who make up the bedrock of the Republican Party.
Despite primary victories that have established him as the GOP presidential front-runner, his stunning trio of defeats this week laid bare the difficulties that still could undercut his path to the party's nomination — and hamper him in the general election to follow.
Not that he would acknowledge as much Wednesday.
"I don't think the conservative base changes its mind day to day," Romney told reporters, dismissing the notion that he's got a problem with the party's core supporters. "The places where I campaigned actively, we got actually in some respects record support from the conservative base."
Such denials aside, Tuesday's three-state caucus sweep by Rick Santorum illustrated the degree to which many conservative voters remain skeptical of Romney's commitment to the GOP base's principles, especially given what some of them see as his history of shifting priorities. And he hasn't been able to sell them on his main argument — that he's the most likely in the primary field to beat Democratic President Barack Obama.
"The more confidence the strong conservatives have in the alternative candidates, the more Romney's lack of strength in those categories starts to show itself," said Iowa Rep. Steve King, a conservative who has been publically neutral in the nomination race.
To rebound, Romney is working to make his chief rivals — all of them running to the right of him — unacceptable in the eyes of conservatives by casting them as big-spending Washington insiders.
"A lot of us feel that the Republican Party lost its way in the past," Romney said Wednesday. "Republicans spent too much money, borrowed too much money, earmarked too much, and Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich have to be held accountable."
Romney, who has struggled to win tea party support, also is appealing directly to the movement saying that it formed because Americans were unhappy with incumbents.
"In this race, I'm the only guy that hasn't spent time in Washington," Romney said. "And Senator Santorum and Speaker Gingrich, they are the very Republicans who acted like Democrats. And when Republicans act like Democrats, they lose. And in Newt Gingrich's case he had to resign. In Rick Santorum's case, he lost by the largest margin of any Senate incumbent since 1980."
The former Massachusetts governor who governed as a moderate chalks up his weak showing Tuesday among the GOP's most devout activists in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri to his campaign's focus on running a national campaign. He's pointing instead to his huge comeback win in the Florida primary last month and follow-up in the Nevada caucuses last weekend.
"We didn't devote a lot of money and time to the states yesterday. We were spending our time and money in Florida and Nevada," Romney said. "And Senator Santorum took a different course, left Florida, left Nevada, went to the other states and he was able to reap the rewards of that approach."
Romney's strongest performances have been in states where he has spent heavily on advertising and has benefited from attacks on his rivals by a political action committee run by his allies. Those victories — coupled with a New Hampshire win —have given him the lead in the race to amass the most delegates to the party's nominating convention, and he also leads his rivals in the money chase.
The front-runner has two weeks to address the conservative angst surrounding his candidacy before facing the next critical test of his standing among conservatives. It comes on Feb. 28 in the Arizona primary, where tea party and conservative activists have shown strength in recent elections, and the Michigan primary, a must-win for Romney where Santorum has pledged to compete aggressively.
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