[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/07/16/art.romney0716,gi.jpg caption="Romney is considered an early frontrunner for the White House race in 2012, according to recent polls."]
WASHINGTON (CNN) - A day after former Baptist minister and likely presidential rival Mike Huckabee offered a withering critique of Mitt Romney's record, Romney made his pitch to the same group of religious conservatives – a voting bloc that could be key to any future White House bid.
The former Massachusetts governor appealed to attendees at the Values Voters Summit in Washington Saturday, using a speech that drew heavily from his address to social conservatives at the same hotel earlier this year. "Putting such a spirit-crushing, back-breaking debt burden on our children is unworthy of our national character," he said. "That is why I believe that this spending and borrowing is not just economically irresponsible, it is morally wrong."
He blasted the Obama administration's financial track record, and its decision to consider prosecuting intelligence agents who violated government protocols on the interrogation of prisoners. "(Obama) can spin a speech, but he can't spin his record," said Romney. "And I'll bet you never dreamed you'd look back at Jimmy Carter as the good old days."
Despite the makeup of the crowd, the speech was relatively light on social issues, focusing instead on economic and security policy.
The former Republican presidential candidate, widely considered a likely 2012 contender, is on the ballot for the gathering's 2012 presidential straw poll, along with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
(Updated with DNC response after the jump)
Just four of those prospective GOP standard-bearers spoke at the three-day conference: Romney, Pence, Huckabee, and Pawlenty. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who will speak later Saturday, earlier asked that his name be removed from the straw poll ballot.
Romney has eked out several victories in similar recent measures of conservative presidential preference, including the Conservative Political Action Conference straw poll earlier this year, and the last Values Voter Summit contest, held two years ago. He narrowly defeated Huckabee that year in a vote that was open to voters who cast their ballots over the Web. This year's vote is limited to conference attendees.
The Mormon Romney – who battled Huckabee for evangelical support during the 2008 Republican primary season – drew a polite, though not overwhelming, response from activists Saturday. He continued to make a bid for social conservative support, taking aim at Obama's address to the nation's schoolchildren earlier this month: He backed the president's decision to speak to students, but slammed him for failing to focus on the challenges of single parenthood and out-of-wedlock births.
Romney's efforts to reform health care in Massachusetts have come under fire from Huckabee, who told the summit Friday that the former governor's plan would bankrupt his former state. "In fact, the only thing inexpensive about Massachusetts' health care bill is that there you can get a $50 abortion," Huckabee said, drawing instant pushback from the Romney camp.
On Saturday, the former Massachusetts governor continued the defense of the health care overhaul launched during his tenure, and criticized President Obama's health care plan. "…This Republican worked to reform health care in my own state," he said. "Not every feature of our plan is perfect, but the lesson it teaches is this: you can get everyone insured, without breaking the bank and without a government option. There is no government option in my Massachusetts reform. The right answer for health care is not more government, it is less government."
Romney's criticism of the president's health care plan drew a muffled shout of "He lied!" from a man in the audience, followed by a round of laughter and applause from the crowd.
The Democratic National Committee - which blasted Tim Pawlenty after his conference speech Friday - also slammed Romney's remarks Saturday. "If Mitt Romney thinks pandering to the far right is a winning strategy, that's his choice," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan. "Of course, it didn't work out so well for him last time. Maybe that's because given how often he changes his position on issues he has no credibility with the right. And given how often he's misrepresenting the truth he doesn't have much credibility with anyone else either."
Conference breakout panels Saturday afternoon are slated to include Global Warming Hysteria: The New Face of the "Pro-Death Agenda"; Obamacare: Rationing Your Life Away; Activism and Conservatism: Fit to a (Tea) Party; and Thugocracy: Fighting the Vast Left-Wing Conspiracy. The summit's straw poll results - an early look at the state of the 2012 race - are scheduled for release mid-afternoon.
Follow Rebecca Sinderbrand on Twitter: @sinderbrandrcnn