CPAC: Santorum rips Romney, rouses conservatives

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, accompanied by his family, acknowledges applause during his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, Friday, Feb. 10, 2012. He is joined by his wife Karen at right. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Updated at 2:34 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON - Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum created a stir at a high-profile conservative conference on Friday by aggressively charging that his GOP rivals aren't conservative enough to excite voters - in the primary or general election.

"We always talk about how are we gonna get the moderates," Santorum said at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). "Why would an undecided voter vote for the candidate that the party's not excited about? We need conservatives to rally for a conservative, to pull with that excitement moderate voters, and to defeat Barack Obama in the fall."

Fresh off his three victories in the nominating contests in Missouri, Colorado and Minnesota, Santorum took the stage at CPAC to a prolonged standing ovation. The annual conference, hosted by the American Conservative Union, draws in thousands of conservative activists. ACU Chairman Al Cardenas described it Friday morning as the "ultimate" conservative focus group.

Santorum fully embraced his conservative ideology before the CPAC crowd, telling them, "Conservatives and Tea Party folk - we are not just wings of the Republican party, we are the Republican party."

By mid-speech, Santorum asked rhetorically, "Who has the boldest contrast" against Obama, and "Who has the record they can run on?" A few in the crowd shouted back, "Santorum!" "You!"

The former Pennsylvania senator joked, "I guess I could quit now since you're all convinced of that."

But instead of quitting, Santorum touted his long record of supporting traditionally conservative health care reform policies like tort reform.

"The major reason I'm in this race is I think Obamacare is a game-changer for America," he said. Without ever naming his main GOP rival Mitt Romney, Santorum slammed the former Massachusetts governor for supporting "the stepchild of Obamacare."

The GOP nomination shouldn't go to "someone who would simply give that issue away in the fall," he said, "give the issue away of government control of your health."

Santorum continued to blast Romney for supporting the Wall Street bailout and carbon caps in Massachusetts.

Santorum also touted his economic plan, which he said would ensure "that the ladder goes down to not just for those working for us, but yes, the very poor." The remarks were a jab at Romney's recent remark that he doesn't care about the "very poor" or the "very rich."

Saying that conservatives have learned their lesson from elections lost in the past, Santorum said, "We wil no longer abanadon and apologize for the principles that made this country great or a hollow victory."

While Santorum never mentioned Romney directly, his benefactor Foster Friess, chairman of Friess Associates, wasn't shy about poking fun at the former governor's reputation as a past moderate.

"A conservative, a liberal and a moderate walked into a bar," Friess joked on stage before Santorum's remarks. "The bartender said, 'Hi Mitt!'"

The joke won applause from the conservative crowd, and Friess went on to discourage conservatives from nominating any more "old war horses" like Bob Dole or John McCain. Democrats have won with "fresh faces" like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, he said, and Republicans should follow suit.

Friess said of Santorum, "Not only does he have the best chance of winning but maybe the only chance of winning."

In response to Santorum's remarks at CPAC, the Romney campaign said that the former senator has plenty of questions to answer about his own record.

"Sen. Santorum conveniently left out of his speech the fact that he is an ardent defender of earmarks, joined with the big-spending establishment in Washington to vote 5 times to raise the debt ceiling and sided with big labor by opposing right to work legislation," Romney spokesperson Andrea Saul said.

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