Romney: I'm a Perfect Conservative, Just Like Reagan

MELBOURNE, Fla. (AP) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney placed himself alongside President Reagan as the perfect conservative during a campaign event Monday.

While answering questions at a luncheon, Romney was asked where he would rate himself as a conservative on a scale of 1 to 10 if Reagan was a 10.

"Probably a 10 as well," the former Massachusetts governor said. "I'm trying to think in what places we would differ. As I've gotten older, Reagan keeps getting smarter and smarter."

He added that he is not a carbon copy of Reagan, but they have some core beliefs in common.

"I'm a believer in markets, I'm a believer in American freedom, I am optimistic about America's future," Romney said. "I share the same optimism that Ronald Reagan had. I wish I had his good looks."

Romney ran as a moderate in a failed 1994 Senate campaign and in his winning gubernatorial campaign eight years later. He's had a difficult time convincing some conservatives that he is sincere in his positions opposing abortion and gay marriage.

The remarks came during Romney's 12th visit to Florida since January. He was speaking at a Space Coast Tiger Bay Club luncheon attended by about 175 people.

Romney has done more public campaigning in Florida since January than any other candidate, Republican or Democrat, and has raised about as much money as Florida GOP front-runner Rudy Giuliani.

Still, the early support that Romney has found in Iowa and New Hampshire is eluding him in Florida despite his frequent visits and a strong political team. His poll numbers in the nation's fourth-largest state are still hovering below 10 percent - a potential problem because Florida's Jan. 29 primary is the first in a large state.

He predicted, though, that his numbers will rise here as they have in Iowa, where he was also a little known candidate.

"Florida plays a big role in this," Romney told a group of about 250 people at an "Ask Mitt Anything" event at Daytona International Speedway. "They've never heard of me in Iowa, but with enough stops and enough effort, I've moved up to the top there and that's what I intend to do right here in Florida."

While Romney is leading in Iowa and New Hampshire, Florida is much tougher for a candidate to make a name with voters. Its 18 million residents are stretched over more than 800 miles from Pensacola to Key West with a population that ranges from old South conservatives to Northeast transplants - and the latter are very familiar with Giuliani, a former New York City mayor.

"Florida is a very diverse and complex state with lots of different voting groups which would be taking part in the Republican primary," said Merle Black, an Emory University political science professor. "He needs success elsewhere in order to allow Florida voters to think he'd be a strong candidate."

During his first stop Monday, Romney also said he supports the space program that is so important to the area.

"One of the few ways that a great nation like ourselves stays ahead of nations that are larger is technology," Romney said. "Our future is driven in large measure in our investment in technology, innovation and in learning. And that's what the space program is."

He spoke to about 350 people at a second "Ask Mitt Anything" event in Tampa.

Romney has also given keynote speeches at five GOP county level fundraisers, including dinners in Miami and Tampa. He has also held meetings with Cuban-American and Venezuelan-American community leaders and with state lawmakers.

Romney has put together a political team that includes influential lobbyist Al Cardenas, a former state Republican Party chairman who was hand-picked by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Others close to Bush are also helping Romney: former Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings; former campaign manager and chief of staff Sally Bradshaw; fundraiser Ann Herberger; former press secretary Kristy Campbell; and a number of Bush's political allies.

"He clearly has a good fundraising team here, he clearly has what I think is the best grass-roots team here," said Brett Doster, a Tallahassee-based Republican strategist who is uncommitted in the presidential race. "If he wins Iowa and he wins New Hampshire and he's able to write the big check to be on television, he could win here, too."

Romney and Giuliani have both raised about $1.9 million in Florida, while Sen. John McCain's tally is about $1.4 million, according to the latest campaign filings from July.

Florida is a harder state to gain traction in than New Hampshire and Iowa without a significant television ad buy - and that can cost more than $1 million a week.

And Giuliani has also targeted Florida, which will hold its primary a week before at least 17 other states vote for Republican candidates.

Giuliani has made 13 trips here since January, though about half have been for private fundraising. Unlike Romney, though, Giuliani is already well known. He has led Republican candidates in the polls with 30 percent or better support.

Giuliani is drawing much of his support from South Florida, where he is far outpolling the competition, said Doster.

"He's killing them down there," he said. "There's many, many transplanted Northeasterners in that part of the state that are giving him oxygen."