DERRY, N.H. — Mitt Romney doesn't see a need to take any special steps to unite conservatives behind his presidential bid, saying over the weekend he already holds "conservative Republican principles" and that he abides by the wisdom of a cartoon character about being himself.
"I'm not going to veer to the left or veer to the right or jump to the middle. As Popeye used to say, 'I am what I am, and that's all what I am,' " he told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview Saturday.
"I do believe that my principles are conservative Republican principles, conservative American principles, and I think by continuing to refer to the blueprint of America, the Constitution of America, and the course laid out by the Founders that conservative Republicans as well as independents and Democrats will come to my support."
The former Massachusetts governor holds a solid lead in the polls here in the Granite State, where his GOP rivals are launching some last-minute attacks against his conservative credentials and honesty ahead of Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary and the ensuing contest in South Carolina later this month.
Mr. Romney has been the one regular face on the GOP leaderboard since June, when he stepped into the race at a farm in nearby Stratham, N.H., with a limited-government message and stiff criticism aimed at what he saw as government overreach under President Obama.
But, roughly six months later, he's still struggling to shake the story line that conservatives are unwilling to rally to his side. Even after scraping out a victory in the Iowa caucuses, Mr. Romney couldn't escape the fact that he received fewer votes this time than in his second-place showing there in 2008, adding to the belief that conservatives are eager for an "anybody-but-Romney" candidate.
Mr. Romney's camp argues he put less effort into the state this year, and his two performances show a steady base of support, though former Sen. Rick Santorum's surge to a near-win in Iowa and his ascendance in the polls could give voters a rallying point.
Mr. Romney said his 2010 book "No Apology" explores his stands on important issues, and he said he'll remain consistent to what he laid out there.
Republican presidential hopefuls regularly struggle against conservative reluctance, and analysts have said that harmed both Sen. John McCain's 2008 bid and then-Sen. Bob Dole's bid in 1996.
But in the interview Saturday, Mr. Romney dismissed the notion that Mr. McCain failed to unify conservatives. Mr. Romney said that a recent article in the Wall Street Journal concluded "that Sen. McCain was able to draw out Republican voters and the conservative base got behind him" in large numbers.
Mr. McCain returned to New Hampshire this week to endorse Mr. Romney, four years after defeating him here. Mr. Romney also worked to shore up his support by campaigning alongside South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a tea party favorite who assured crowds that as a "conservative," she's confident that Mr. Romney "is the right partner to have in the White House."
Saturday afternoon his campaign released a letter from social conservative leaders, particularly those active in the pro-life movement, who said they think Mr. Romney has set aside the pro-choice beliefs he espoused during his failed 1994 Senate campaign against then-Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Mr. Romney said he doesn't think Pakistan should be put on the U.S. State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism and that he's indifferent about the length of the nomination race.
"I hope to get 1,150 delegates," he said. "I'd rather get them sooner than later. I think anybody would, but I'm prepared to go the distance."
He also promised to put forward a broad immigration plan before the November election.
Last week, he sparked attacks from Democrats after he said he would veto the Dream Act, which would legalize some illegal immigrant students and young adults. Those illegal immigrants, often brought to the U.S. as infants, are considered among the most sympathetic of candidates for legal status.
Asked if there was any room for exceptions, Mr. Romney said he might allow some hardship cases, but left little wiggle room beyond those already built into current law for refugee cases or Cuban immigrants.
"The comment 'no circumstances' is a very broad term, and so if you'd like us to go into specific examples, for instance, a child that's a refugee, a child that comes from a politically unstable place, uh, Cuba," he said. "So there are many different circumstances I would have to consider."
He said in formulating his broader immigration policy, he will continue to push for a system that does not give illegal immigrants an advantage.
"I will put out a series of immigration proposals before November of 2012, and I will look at adjustments to the law that I think may be necessary, but my principle is straightforward, and that is that those who come here illegally really should not be given a preferential path to permanent residency or citizenship," he said.
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