"You and I have a lot of common beliefs that are the same and we have some that are different," said the former New York mayor, a moderate on a number of social issues. "The point of a presidential election is to figure out who you agree with the most."
CBS News senior political editor Vaughn Ververs reports Romney revved up the crowd with a menu of red-meat issues and received several standing ovations. He sought to reassure conservatives who might be suspicious about his relatively recent conversion on abortion by highlighting his experience as governor of Massachusetts, saying, "I have stood in the center of the battlefield on every major social issue. I fought to preserve our traditional values and protect life."
Romney has said he became an opponent of abortion after studying the issues of stem cell research and cloning. Other prospective candidates referenced Romney's change in position in their speeches Friday. Rep. Tom Tancredo suggested some candidates may be taking politically convenient positions. "Conversions are supposed to be made on the road to Damascus, not the road to Des Moines," he said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., was the only top-tier GOP candidate to skip the event.
"It just didn't fit in with our schedule," McCain said while campaigning in Utah. He then headed to Phoenix for a fund-raiser a day after he won a county straw poll in Spartanburg, S.C.
McCain's absence was sure to further irritate conservatives who already are skeptical that they can trust him because of his reputation of bucking the party. Even though he has a conservative social and fiscal voting record, McCain has angered conservatives with his work on campaign finance reform, immigration and other legislation they oppose.
The series of speeches came a day after Romney assailed McCain and Giuliani — an indication the GOP contest was taking on a sharper tone a full 10 months before the first primary votes are cast.
Giuliani's lead over McCain in national popularity polls has widened in recent weeks, and he took the stage to raucous cheers before a star-struck crowd. The audience, packed into a hotel ballroom, erupted in applause and catcalls several times throughout his 30-minute-plus speech.
In it, he sought to prove that his performance as mayor — on issues such as welfare and taxes, and his leadership qualities — override any concerns voters may have about him. Although Giuliani didn't describe his moderate stance on guns, abortion and gay rights, his reference was obvious.
At one point, Giuliani told activists that when he became mayor of New York, he thought he could reform the city's school system — a remark that prompted the crowd to laugh.
"OK, I made mistakes. I'm going to admit them and apologize for them," Giuliani said with a wry smile and a pause as the crowd howled. It was an apparent reference to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the Democratic presidential front-runner who has been criticized for failing to call her 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq War a mistake.
Conservatives have questioned the credentials of Giuliani, McCain and Romney — and aren't sold on any of the three. Several other little-known candidates, like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, are hoping to emerge as strong challengers by capturing the backing of that critical part of the GOP base.
"We can't afford to elect people who simply reflect a culture and reflect a common view, but don't necessarily believe it," Huckabee said, indirectly referring to the three.
"Maybe this weekend might be renamed the Conservative Presidential Anxiety Conference," Huckabee said, reflecting the mood of the convention, to ripples of chuckles. "The theme might be 'Dude, where's my candidate?' "
"I'd like to think that maybe he's standing in front of you," Huckabee said before emphasizing his conservative positions on social issues — while seeking to reassure the activists that he's a fiscal conservative despite raising taxes as governor.
As a way to highlight his conservative values — and the fact that unlike Giuliani and McCain, he has been married only once — Romney invited his wife, Ann up to the podium. Ann Romney informed the audience that the couple will be celebrating their 38th anniversary this month, adding that, "for me, he has been an extraordinary husband. And most importantly, he has been a terrific example to our five sons and now, to our 10 grandchildren."