WASHINGTON — Staggered by Rick Santorum's surge, Mitt Romney is trying to reset his presidential campaign by defining himself as a strict conservative.
The former Massachusetts governor had focused on his business credentials and played down his ideology, four years after he failed in his attempt to win the GOP nomination by running as a social conservative.
"I was a severely conservative Republican governor," Romney told the Conservative Political Action Committee's annual gathering Friday. It was a speech that, advisers said, Romney viewed as an important chance to speak directly to the conservatives who rejected him in three contests last Tuesday.
He insisted that he is a conservative in both record and background, trying to convince the GOP's skeptical right flank that he is acceptable as the party's nominee.
"My path to conservatism came from my family, from my faith and from my life's work," Romney said.
He's working to gain trust from the activists who make up the GOP base and who drive the Republican primary contest. They view him skeptically because of his past shifts on a variety of issues, including his previous support for abortion rights.
Conservatives generally view Romney's chief rivals, Santorum and Newt Gingrich, as having views more in line with their own.
Romney's new message comes as he's trying to prove he can win over a broad spectrum of Republicans. He has yet to win a majority of GOP votes in any of the contests he's won so far. And he's looking to emerge strongly from Super Tuesday, March 6, when 10 states hold nominating contests.
In offering the defense, though, Romney drew attention to the problem he's faced throughout the primary contest.