MACKINAC ISLAND, MICH. — Courting the party faithful Saturday at the Mackinac Republican Leadership Conference, Mitt Romney promised to return a wayward GOP to its core principles while rival John McCain portrayed himself as the most qualified to take charge of the country amid dangerous times.
"Change must begin with us," Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, told activists as he challenged the party to "put our own house in order."
Sen. McCain of Arizona lamented "a perilous time for our party but, far more important, a perilous time for our country." Fred Thompson, a former Tennessee senator, gave his usual low-key stump speech filled with general conservative themes.
A day earlier, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani made his own standard pitch as the Republican presidential hopefuls and descended on the picturesque island in Lake Huron to cozy up to 1,500 activists from this Midwestern state.
Michigan became an early player in the nomination race when it moved its primaries to Jan. 15.
On Saturday, Romney argued that Republicans share the blame with Democrats for the nation's woes. He bemoaned excessive spending, insecure borders and ethical lapses. "When Republicans act like Democrats, America loses," he said.
Even as he sought to distance himself from the president, Romney gave Bush credit for keeping the United States safe and in "restoring personal integrity and dignity to the White House." But otherwise Romney talked of problems with the government, saying, for example, that the Hurricane Katrina cleanup "didn't look like Republicans were in charge."
Unlike Giuliani's rambunctious reception the night before, Romney got only scattered and infrequent applause as he gave his stark assessment about the GOP's woes.
Only when he returned to his usual right-flank pitch -- restoring family values and shrinking government -- did the audience come alive.
Still, Romney's views did resonate with some. "Things that Republicans normally stand for have been pushed to the side, and I think Mitt wants to get us back on track," said Jim Gerchow, 61, a small-business owner from Sturgis, Mich., who so far isn't backing a candidate.
Said Colleen Pero, 52, a lawyer from Laingsburg, Mich., who was leaning toward Giuliani: "Clearly, Republicans agree with what he said. We've lost our brand. We've lost our way."
McCain made a similar argument for change in November after Republicans lost their majority in Congress. Since then, he has watched his campaign falter and shifted his focus.
In his remarks Saturday, McCain sought to underscore the security threats the United States faces and likened himself -- and these times -- to a conservative behemoth and world dangers in the 1980s.
"Today, the challenges are at least as severe as they were when Ronald Reagan stood tall," he said. "And, today, the differences between Republicans and Democrats on national security are every bit as they were 30 years ago."
Thompson talked about his biography, emphasized his commitment to federalism and renewed his call for a return to so-called first principles of fiscal restraint, free markets, personal liberties and smaller government.
"Not every solution to every problem comes from Washington, D.C.," he said.