Mitt Romney suggested last week that he and his fellow Republican presidential contenders would avoid the "rancor" that flared between Democrats after one of Barack Obama's fundraisers questioned Hillary Rodham Clinton's honesty.
This week, with polls showing him running third, the former Massachusetts governor took sharper aim at his leading rivals, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
McCain, Romney told New Hampshire voters on Thursday, was devising an immigration policy that was the "wrong course" for the nation. And Giuliani's positions on abortion, gay marriage and gun control were a losing combination in the GOP primary, he told a television audience replete with Christian conservatives.
The criticism set the tone for a series of speeches Friday before the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, an annual convention of conservative activists dating to 1973.
Besides Romney and Giuliani, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was to speak. McCain planned to spend Friday fundraising in Utah.
'We are different on certain measures'
Romney typed away on a laptop Thursday, fine-tuning his remarks between four campaign stops in New Hampshire. He also attended an editorial board meeting with the New Hampshire Union Leader, whose editorial page is closely read by conservatives.
"I don't intend to be characterizing other people other than to point out places where we're different, and we are different on certain measures," Romney said before his final campaign stop Thursday, a dinner speech to GOP activists from Derry, Hampton and Portsmouth.
"I don't think there's anything wrong pointing out where we're different, because some people will agree with me and some will agree with somebody else," he added. "And on some issues, someone else will be more conservative than I am, but that just depends on the issue, and I'm by no means the most conservative on all issues."
Last week, during another swing through New Hampshire, Romney delighted in the Democratic infighting and cast the Republican field as a far more harmonious lot.
"I'm sure we'll disagree on issues from time to time, but I doubt you'll see the rancor that apparently may exist elsewhere," he said Feb. 23 during a stop in Merrimack.
Illegal immigrant amnesty
Romney highlighted one of those policy disagreements during his first appearance Thursday, targeting McCain and his proposal to offer different classifications of illegal immigrants varying pathways to legal residency.
"I don't agree with it. I think it's the wrong course," Romney said. "I do not believe amnesty is the right course for the 11 or 12 million illegal immigrants who are living here. It didn't work in the 1980s. It's not going to work in the 2000s either."
McCain, who announced Wednesday night that he will formally become a candidate next month, has pushed such legislation.
Romney said he favors securing the U.S.-Mexico border with a fence and wants to institute an employment verification system through high-tech identification cards.
In Utah for a fundraiser, McCain responded to Romney's criticisms by saying he believes that a comprehensive approach to immigration is needed.
"So does the president of the United States. None of us support amnesty, and we need to secure our borders," the senator said.
McCain spokesman Matt David cited a Romney comment last year in which Romney said he doesn't believe in rounding up 11 million people and forcing them at gunpoint from the country.
Meanwhile, in an interview posted on the Christian Broadcasting Network Web site, Romney criticized McCain for opposing a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.
McCain replied, "I believe in the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman, but I believe the states should decide."
Abortion, Gays and guns
Romney also criticized Giuliani during his CBN interview.
"He is pro-choice, he is pro-gay marriage and antigun," Romney said. "That's a tough combination in a Republican primary."
Giuliani spokeswoman Katie Levinson replied: "Mayor Giuliani has the utmost respect for Governor Romney. The mayor's position on gay marriage has been both clear and consistent - he does not support gay marriage and believes marriage should be between a man a woman."
Romney's own past positions have drawn scrutiny. In previous campaigns, Romney has said abortion should be safe and legal. He now describes himself as "pro-life." In 1994, he promised a gay Republican group he would be a stronger advocate for gays than his liberal opponent, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
South Carolina straw poll
Meanwhile, in a sign of what die-hard Republicans may think of the field of presidential contenders, Giuliani was leading 10 other candidates Thursday in a straw poll in conservative Spartanburg County, S.C.
With 81 of 92 precincts reporting, Giuliani had garnered 158 votes. California Rep. Duncan Hunter was a close second with 152 votes, while McCain was third with 116, county GOP officials said.
Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback had 83 votes, Romney had 80 and Huckabee 21. A final vote count was expected Friday.