WASHINGTON (AP) _ Republicans presidential contenders Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney frequently invoked Ronald Reagan and boasted about their allegiance to the GOP's core principles as they sought to win over skeptical conservatives Friday.
``You and I have a lot of common beliefs that are the same and we have some that are different,'' said Giuliani, the former New York City mayor who urged GOP activists to look past his moderate stances on gun control, abortion and gay rights. ``The point of a presidential election is to figure out who you agree with the most.''
Romney argued it was he, not his rivals.
``This is not the time for us to shrink from conservative principles,'' the former Massachusetts governor told an enthusiastic audience, brushing aside questions about his own credentials.
Lesser-known White House hopefuls also mentioned Republican icon Reagan while speaking to a few thousand activists at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. 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 fundraiser a day after he won a county straw poll in Spartanburg, S.C.
A full 10 months before the first primary votes, conservatives are still searching for a presidential candidate.
Giuliani, Romney and McCain have attracted some support from within the crucial voting group, but several prominent leaders in the movement have expressed frustration about the top choices. Some conservatives don't trust that they're sincere in fighting for issues they hold dear.
Hailing from ultraliberal New York, Giuliani has moderate stances on social issues and has been married three times. Romney is from Democratic-leaning Massachusetts and has equivocated on a host of issues while switching his positions on abortion and gay rights. And, the once-divorced McCain has worked on some legislation conservatives hate. His reputation of bucking the party makes them question his veracity.
Given such discontent, several other little-known candidates 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,'' Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, told the crowd _ an indirect reference to the pacesetting trio.
Like most of the other speakers, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a darling of the religious right, emphasized both fiscal and social conservative views. He drew thundering applause when he held up two large red books, which he identified as the Internal Revenue Service code, and said: ``This should be taken behind a barn and killed with a dull ax.''
Attesting to his popularity, Giuliani took the stage to raucous cheers before a star-struck audience. The hotel ballroom was packed so tight for his speech that organizers stopped letting people inside.
``Ronald Reagan used to say, 'My 80 percent ally is not my 20 percent enemy,''' Giuliani said, a reference to their disagreements on some but not all issues.
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.
At one point, Giuliani told the crowd that when he became mayor he thought he could reform the city's school system _ a remark that prompted laughter.
``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.
Romney, for his part, tried to draw sharp distinctions with Giuliani and McCain a day after assailing both.
He called his wife Ann on stage at the start of his speech. ``Mitt and I will be celebrating our 38th wedding anniversary this month,'' she said _ a reminder that McCain and Giuliani have been divorced.
Romney quoted Reagan, who said, ``I have seen the conservative future, and it works.''
Seizing on issues conservatives detest, Romney assailed campaign finance reform and immigration proposals that include a guest-worker program. In a jab at his rival, he referred to the former as McCain-Feingold, for the Arizona senator and Russell Feingold, D-Wis., and the latter as McCain-Kennedy, including the liberal icon Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
At the same time, he swiped at Giuliani's moderate social stances without naming him. As governor, Romney said, ``I stood at the center of the battlefield on every major social issue. I fought to preserve our traditional values and protect the sanctity of human life.''