Critics line up to ridicule Romney after he claims to be 'severely conservative'

Victory in Maine caucus is overshadowed by a clumsy attempt to woo the Republican right

Mitt Romney's latest attempt to woo the Republican rank and file misfired spectacularly, as popular figures lined up to ridicule his description of himself as "severely conservative".

The critics questioned his choice of words, wondering why he would think of conservatism as severe, leaving the former Massachusetts governor unable to capitalise on a victory in the Maine caucus on Saturday that was the last vote before a two-week hiatus in the primary season.

Mr Romney's latest difficulties came as conservatives continued to coalesce around Rick Santorum, the former senator for Pennsylvania who has emerged as his latest and most potent challenger.

Mr Romney in fact won a straw poll of attendees at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this weekend, by 38 per cent to Mr Santorum's 31 per cent, in a vote that at first looked like it might blunt criticism that Mr Romney has failed to excite the party faithful. A few hours later his victory in Maine by 39 per cent over second-placed Ron Paul with 36 per cent and Mr Santorum on 18 per cent, suggested that he may even be able to stop the growing momentum of the Santorum campaign.

Mr Santorum snatched victories over Mr Romney in Missouri, Minnesota and – most stunningly – Colorado last week. While Mr Romney has remained the frontrunner, the party's religious conservatives have sought out a string of alternative candidates, fearing his record in the relatively liberal state of Massachusetts suggests he is too willing to compromise on issues such as abortion or healthcare. Now Mr Romney's courtship of the hugely influential CPAC audience may end up doing him more harm than good. His Friday night speech mentioned conservative or conservatism 24 times in 20 minutes, including when he said: "I fought against long odds in a deep blue state, but I was a severely conservative Republican governor in Massachusetts."

Sarah Palin, the 2008 vice-presidential candidate who was the real darling of CPAC, led the mockery in a television appearance after her own star turn on the conference stage. "I wasn't quite sure what the word 'severely' meant," she said with a smile. "It sounded severe."

Mr Paul, whose strong grassroots campaign was disappointed not to edge out Mr Romney in Maine, told CBS's Face The Nation yesterday: "That was the first time I've heard that definition, so I guess Mitt will have to tell us exactly what it means."

Mr Santorum, meanwhile, questioned the value of Mr Romney's straw poll victory at CPAC, pointing out how the Romney campaign had worked hard to fill the conference with supporters.

The Santorum campaign, however, remains on a shoestring budget. It used the conference to appeal for volunteers to help in upcoming primary states. Yesterday it was revealed that Alice Stewart,the spokesman for Michele Bachmann while she was the main conservative challenger to Mr Romney, will join the Santorum campaign.