The Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC, wraps up today in Washington, D.C. Thousands of Republican activists from around the country are gathered to hear directly from candidates and other leaders, against the backdrop of a heated presidential primary race.

Three of the remaining presidential candidates spoke yesterday. The fourth, Ron Paul, has skipped this gathering. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from the hotel where the conference is taking place.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Four years ago, this meeting was where Mitt Romney took his farewell bow, leaving the presidential race.


MITT ROMNEY: I feel I have to now stand aside - for our party, and for our country.


SHAPIRO: This year, he arrives at the conference as the front-runner - but with some serious obstacles in the path to his nomination. Foster Friess, who supports Rick Santorum, highlighted one of those obstacles with a joke.


FOSTER FRIESS: Recently, a conservative, a liberal and a moderate walked into the bar. The bartender says: Hi, Mitt.


SHAPIRO: Through this entire campaign, Romney has struggled to prove his conservative authenticity. Many of his critics are especially skeptical of Romney's time as Massachusetts governor.


ROMNEY: I was a severely conservative Republican governor.


SHAPIRO: In his speech yesterday, Romney refused to let others define him as a moderate. He hardly uttered a sentence that did not include the word conservative or conservatism.


ROMNEY: My family, my faith, my business. I know conservatism because I have lived conservatism.

SHAPIRO: This was not the typical campaign speech. This time, Romney went into great detail about his family history.


ROMNEY: My dad grew up poor; never had the chance to finish his college degree. But he believed in a country where the circumstances of one's birth were not a barrier to life's achievement. And so with hard work, he became the head of a car company, and then he became governor of the great state of Michigan.

SHAPIRO: At every turn, Romney mentioned the conservative constants that have shaped his life. But in their own speeches, Romney's rivals weren't buying it. Rick Santorum said Romney's failure to bring Republicans together now could lead to a similar failure in the general election.


RICK SANTORUM: We always talk about, oh, how are we going to get the moderates? Why would an undecided voter vote for a candidate of a party who the party's not excited about?


SHAPIRO: Santorum's sweep of three states this week leaves Newt Gingrich struggling to reclaim his position as the most credible conservative alternative to Romney. Yesterday, Gingrich delivered the same stump speech he has given hundreds of times. But what made his appearance unusual was his introduction by his wife, Callista. Often silent, Mrs. Gingrich told some stories about her husband, in an effort to humanize him.


CALLISTA GINGRICH: Newt is an enthusiastic and committed golfer. It's true. He gets in and out of more sand traps than anyone I have ever seen.


SHAPIRO: So with the next voting still more than two weeks off, the contest between the candidates is echoed by the conference attendees. Brandon Standish came to town from Buffalo, New York.

BRANDON STANDISH: It's a little scary, in a way. I mean, it seems like even being here at this event, there's - many cleavages within the overall blanket group of the GOP.

SHAPIRO: And indeed, there are many flavors of activism to be sampled in the lobby of this conference. There are social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, military hawks, Tea Partyers - and everyone else.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We're raffling off free silver at our booth. Come check it out, downstairs.

SHAPIRO: In another area, a man walks by in a rhinoceros costume. He takes off the head to introduce himself as David Spielman of the group FreedomWorks.

DAVID SPIELMAN: The idea behind the rhino costume is, you know, there's a lot of Republicans out there that claim to be very conservative when really, their voting record shows that they're not. And that's the term called RHINO - Republican in name only.

SHAPIRO: The eventual Republican nominee will need a broader political spectrum of voters if he wants to become president. But for this weekend - and the primary season in general - the calculation is simple. At CPAC, conservatism is good; and the more conservative, the better.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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