MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. – Republican Mitt Romney on Saturday bluntly challenged his party to "put our own house in order" as the GOP presidential candidates courted activists in Michigan, now an important player in the nomination march.
Rivals John McCain and Rudy Giuliani also assailed Democratic contenders during a weekend retreat attended by some 1,500 Republicans on a picturesque Lake Huron island.
"Washington is failing us," Romney said in a speech that is part of a new effort to cast him as the candidate who can lead the party back to its core principles.
"The blame doesn't all belong to the Democrats. We Republicans have to put our own house in order," the former Massachusetts governor said.
McCain, in remarks planned for Saturday night, lamented "a perilous time for our party but, far more important, a perilous time for our country." The Arizona senator attacked the national security positions of the leading Democratic candidates, although he did not name the politicians, and renewed his call for resolve on Iraq.
Former New York Mayor Giuliani drew boisterous bursts of applause, cheers and laughter Friday night for castigating the Democrats.
At one point, he asked: "Do we go in the direction of much larger government, which is where Hillary (Rodham) Clinton, Barack Obama or John Edwards will take us, or do we go in the direction of ... giving people more control over their own lives?"
The GOP gathering came three weeks after Michigan moved its primaries to Jan. 15, making it one of the earliest states to hold nominating contests in 2008.
Fred Thompson, the actor and former Tennessee senator, also was scheduled to speak Saturday night. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is keeping the door slightly open to a possible late entry, was on hand, too.
Two underdog GOP candidates addressed the group; three others were absent.
There is no clear front-runner four months before the voting begins. Giuliani has an edge in national popularity polls. Thompson, in the race just two weeks, is giving chase. McCain is looking for momentum. Romney ranks behind them in national surveys, but leads in Iowa and New Hampshire, among the first states to vote.
Romney's speech, coupled with fresh television ads and an open letter to party leaders, marks a shift as he seeks to capitalize on discontent among Republicans about the country's direction.
With a sharp critique of the GOP, Romney is distancing himself from President Bush and Republicans who ran the House and Senate until last fall. Bush's support is at a low mark as is Congress' job approval.
Romney offered a sobering assessment of the party and argued that Republicans share the blame with Democrats for the nation's woes.
In an indictment of Republicans, he bemoaned excessive spending, insecure borders and ethical lapses. "When Republicans act like Democrats, America loses," he said. "We've got to start acting like Republicans, not earmarking Republicans, not big government Republicans, but like Reagan Republicans and Teddy Roosevelt Republicans."
He did give Bush some credit. "Let's not forget that this president has kept us safe these last six years," Romney said. He also praised the president for "restoring personal integrity and dignity to the White House." But otherwise Romney rattled off a slew of problems with the government, saying, for example, that the post-Hurricane Katrina cleanup "didn't look like Republicans were in charge."
In his speech, McCain focused on the security challenges confronting the U.S. "The world Ronald Reagan faced was a dangerous one, but more stable than the world today," McCain said.
He chastised those Democratic candidates who voted against military spending, have questioned whether there was a global fight against terrorism and have advocated "unconditional negotiations with our worst enemies."
The senator pleaded for patience on Iraq. "To concede defeat — as many leading Democrats now advocate — would strengthen al-Qaida, empower Iran and other hostile powers in the Middle East, unleash a full-scale civil war in Iraq that could quite possibly provoke genocide there, and destabilize the entire region," McCain said.
On just about every issue, Giuliani cited Clinton, Obama and Edwards and then sought to tear them down, much to the delight of his audience. He railed against their health care proposals and said they would raise taxes if elected. He also contended that "Democrats want to retreat" in the face of threats from terrorists.
To cap it off, Giuliani portrayed himself as the only Republican able to prevent a Democratic from capturing the White House. "I have the best chance of defeating Hillary Clinton," who many assume will win the Democratic nomination.