WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney's subtle but unmistakable shift in rhetoric this weekend was just the latest evidence of the churning course of the Republican race for president.
On one hand, it was natural that the former governor would emphasize his conservatism before a crowd of the party's most committed right-wing activists.
Throughout the campaign, he has checked all the right boxes on the social issues so vital to the thousands of activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference. But he has seldom dwelled on the right-wing skepticism on the evolution of his positions on issues such as abortion and gay rights.
Instead he has emphasized his business acumen with the calculation that economic issues would dominate the race in a recession-battered country.
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who flirted with a bid for the GOP nomination, was criticized by movement conservatives, including Sen. Rick Santorum, for suggesting early last year that the country's dire economic needs argued for at least a temporary truce on social issues.
Mr. Romney never endorsed that call, but his rhetoric implicitly followed the advice.
But on Friday, in the aftermath of three losses last Tuesday to Mr. Santorum, Mr. Romney donned the robes of culture warrior in a speech that used the word conservative two dozen times.
The shift reflected the new dynamics of the internal GOP combat.
And it came as a confluence of other events suggested possible upheaval in the issue terrain of the coming general election battle.
Hours after Mr. Romney spoke, a national survey from Public Policy Polling, an independent but Democratic leaning firm, showed Mr. Santorum, for the first time, leading in a national survey of Republicans.
Fresh from his victories in Missouri, Minnesota, and Colorado, Mr. Santorum had vaulted ahead to be supported by 38 percent of those surveyed, followed by Mr. Romney at 23 percent, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich at 17 percent, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul at 13 percent.
But in a statement with the results, Dean Debnam, president of the polling firm, cautioned: "When he comes under attack in the coming days, his lead could evaporate as quickly as it was created."
After his speech, Mr. Romney flew to Maine, where a week-long caucus was wrapping up. Mr. Paul, seeking his first statewide victory, had campaigned hard there, but Mr. Romney prevailed.
Back in Washington, a straw poll of the CPAC registrants was under way.
Mr. Romney's efforts were rewarded as he finished with 38 percent, followed by Mr. Santorum, 31 percent, Mr. Gingrich, 15 percent, and Mr. Paul, who had won the last two straw polls here, 12 percent.
The organizers, in conjunction with the Washington Times, released a parallel survey of self-identified conservatives across the country.
The order was identical, although the first and second-place finishers, Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum, were in a near tie at 27 percent and 25 percent. Mr. Gingrich trailed at 15 percent, followed by Mr. Paul at 12 percent.
No delegates would be meted out in either of those votes.
At the end of the month, Arizona and Michigan will vote.
In a TV interview, Mr. Santorum boldly said he believes he can win Michigan, despite its being the state of Mr. Romney's birth and the one where his father, the late George Romney, was a governor.
David Keene, a former president of the American Conservative Union, the group that sponsors CPAC, said after his speech that Mr. Romney, "has a lot of friends here," but had "failed so far to make the sale."
"They say, 'Well, Romney certainly says some of the right things, but can we trust him? Do we really know him?' " said Mr. Keene, who is neutral in the GOP contest. "He's got a ways to go. But I think he's winning more of them all the time."
Mr. Keene, now the president of the National Rifle Association, was an adviser to former Sen. Bob Dole in his unsuccessful bid for the GOP nomination against former President George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Mr. Dole, considered a more conservative candidate than Mr. Bush, won the Iowa caucuses and a smattering of smaller states including Minnesota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Wyoming, but succumbed to the better financed and organized Bush campaign.
Noting Mr. Santorum's fresh string of victories over Mr. Romney, he said, "The problem we had in '88 and the problem Santorum faces is the geometric increase in the need for money."
J. Hogan Gidley, a senior adviser to Mr. Santorum, announced recently that the underfunded campaign had at least begun to bridge the financial chasm with the amply funded Romney effort, saying that the insurgent campaign had raised $3 million in the three days following his Feb. 7 wins.
Pointing to the 10 nominating contests of Super Tuesday on March 6, Al Cardenas, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, who had introduced Mr. Romney the day before, said of the GOP race, "If we still have mixed signals after March 6, as we do today, it will go a while."
"It's highly unlikely that it will go to a brokered convention," he added, "but let's revisit that on March 7."
The final speaker at the CPAC, a combined convention, trade show, job fair, and celebration of all things conservative, was Sarah Palin.
Amid the roiling developments of this nomination fight, her presence was a reminder of how the general election could present similarly unexpected turns.
President Obama, and Sen. John McCain, the man who chose her as his running mate, both started with candidacies heavily influenced by the issue of the war in Iraq, Mr. Obama an opponent, Mr. McCain at first a lonely voice in favor of the troop surge that eventually would reduce the level of violence there.
Through the summer and fall of 2008, as the campaign became increasingly dominated by the economy, Mr. Obama proved more able than his opponent -- who was handicapped by being a member of the same party as the president then presiding over the economic slide -- at battling on the new issue terrain.
The expectation throughout the GOP race has been that the nominee would face a president hobbled by having to defend an ailing economy.
The speeches at CPAC came after several weeks that offered at least faint hints that the economy could be stronger than expected by election day, which would alter the challenges for both parties.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole is politics editor for the Post-Gazette.
Contact James O'Toole at: email@example.com or 412-263-1562