WASHINGTON — GOP presidential rivals made contrasting appeals to conservatives Friday, with Mitt Romney saying he proved his mettle as Massachusetts governor and Rick Santorum saying Romney is so moderate that electing him would be a "hollow victory."
Their speeches to the Conservative Political Action Conference came as Santorum tries to convert his surprising caucus wins this week into a resilient, muscular campaign and Romney seeks to persuade conservatives that he won't disappoint them.
Santorum's tack was unorthodox, and perhaps risky. Facing Republicans who desperately want to replace President Barack Obama, Santorum said it's even more vital to put a conservative crusader into the White House.
"We will no longer abandon and apologize for the policies and principles that made this country great for a hollow victory in November," he said.
If voters see that as a hint that it's more important to be ideologically pure than to oust Obama, Santorum may have to explain more fully in the days ahead.
Romney, speaking a few hours later, said his four-year record in Massachusetts proved that he will fight for conservative values against the toughest odds.
"I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism," he said. Veering briefly from his written text, he called himself "severely conservative."
But Romney skated past details of his administration that trouble some right-leaning groups, including requiring state residents to obtain health insurance.
Without saying Romney's name, Santorum 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."
Saying the Obama-backed 2010 health care law "will crush economic freedom," Santorum urged Republicans not to nominate "someone who would simply give that issue away in the fall."
Santorum warned Republicans against a premature emphasis on moderate voters, who could decide the presidential election in swing states.
"We always talk about, 'Oh, how are we going to get the moderates?'" Santorum said. "Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate of a party who the party is not excited about?"
Romney alluded to his rivals obliquely, never saying their names. Presidential leadership "isn't about getting a bill out of subcommittee or giving a speech," he said.
"I am the only candidate in this race, Republican or Democrat, who has never worked a day in Washington."
His remarks appeared aimed at former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul, all of whom spent years in Congress.