Mitt Romney met privately with a group of conservative activists and opinion leaders Thursday, on the eve of his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. In a wide-ranging discussion, a number of participants urged Romney to refrain from attacking rival Rick Santorum with the scorched-earth intensity that he directed at Newt Gingrich.
Romney told the group he had thought Gingrich's surge would be the last challenge in the primary campaign, only to see Santorum surge with victories in Minnesota, Colorado, and Missouri last Tuesday. Now, with Santorum the man of the moment, Romney joked that it is time to get the oppo research up and running again. He quickly added: No, no, I'm only kidding.
But Romney's remarks suggested he wasn't entirely kidding. "He said Rick has to be held up to the same scrutiny as everyone else," says one meeting participant. (This account is based on conversations with three people who were in the room.) Romney specifically mentioned hitting Santorum on his record on earmarks and other federal spending.
It's not clear whether Romney's answer satisfied the group. In general, a number of participants don't want to see a repeat of the Romney-Gingrich attacks because a) they feel Santorum doesn't deserve it, and b) they believe the negativity has been bad for Republicans overall. Romney told the group that the attacks on Gingrich were not his doing but rather the work of the super PAC that works on Romney's behalf but not under his control.
On another topic, some of the participants were concerned that Romney has offered lackluster performances on the stump. Romney asked for their input. "He does recognize the need to hone the message," says another participant. "That's why he had the meeting." Their advice was for him to add more substance and specificity to his speeches. All the exchanges were entirely cordial and non-confrontational -- "Nobody criticized him; nobody said please stop reciting 'America the Beautiful,'" says the participant -- but there is no doubt the activists wanted to hear Romney discuss in more detail what he would do if he wins the presidency.