They may not be ready to accept GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney's invitation to stand with him "shoulder to shoulder," but conservatives at their biggest annual gathering gave him a reception Friday that at times rose to rousing.
Tacitly acknowledging that his past positions on abortion rights and health care mandates have made him suspect with a swath of his party's base, Romney used his speech to describe his "path to conservatism" as a mix of family values, faith and his "life's work" in business.
"I know conservatism because I've lived conservatism," Romney told the receptive American Conservative Union crowd that packed the ballroom at a Washington hotel. "I want to get my hands on Washington, D.C."
Focusing his fire almost exclusively on President Obama, Romney made perhaps his most impassioned and complete case to date for his candidacy, which, despite superior organization and money, has failed to catch fire with the base.
He tailored his language to place himself as one with his audience, frequently invoking "we conservatives" and "as conservatives."
"This election is a defining moment for America, for the conservative movement," he said, a time to "go forward shoulder to shoulder."
What distinguishes the candidates running for the GOP nomination, he said, is the "nature of our life's experiences." He stressed his 25 years in business, and elicited applause when he said he was "not ashamed to say" he was successful at it.
He also defended his tenure as governor in Massachusetts, and characterized himself as the only candidate who has not worked in Washington. (He did try to get there twice before, running for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts in 1994, and for the GOP nomination in 2008.)
"I fought against long odds in a deep blue state," he said. "But I was a severely conservative governor."
Romney's much-anticipated speech came at a critical moment for the former Massachusetts governor, who, after big victories in Florida and Nevada, was snubbed last week by Republican primary and caucus-goers in three state presidential contests.
He's also been taking fresh and hard fire from the surging Rick Santorum, who won those contests in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota — though none added to his presidential delegate count.
In a speech earlier in the day, Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, without naming Romney, ripped into him for his support of a health care overhaul in Massachusetts that served as a model for Obama's health care legislation.
Republicans, Santorum said, can't cede the "Obamacare" issue before the general election race even begins. He characterized the Massachusetts plan approved when Romney was governor as the "stepchild of Obamacare."
It's become the major refrain from Santorum, who, backed by his wife and six of his seven children, drew thunderous applause and a few standing ovations.
Santorum also hit on what has been a common theme at this year's convention: how to define "electability" — someone who can appeal to the broad middle needed to win a general election, or someone whose staunch conservative bona fides can excite the party.
"We need conservatives now to rally for a conservative to go into November to excite the conservative base," he said, "to pull with that excitement moderate voters, and to defeat Barack Obama in the fall."
Romney took a fairly big step Friday in his attempt to position himself as that conservative and to convince his harshest critics that he's one of them.
"Let's do it together," he said.
Later Friday, GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich will get his star turn at the convention, ready, like Santorum, to direct his fire at Romney, too.