For a group of politicians who invoke Ronald Reagan as if he were a cross between George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ, the Republican presidential candidates haven’t learned his secret to success very well. The two candidates who invoke him the most often—Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich—do the worst job of imitating his political strategy. If you want to understand why Mitt Romney would be a better candidate in the general election than Gingrich or Santorum, the candidates’ speeches at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington on Friday were a perfect demonstration.

Reagan, of course, was a conservative. But his appeal to non-traditional Republican voters lay in his positive vision of America. He called it “a shining city on a hill” and declared “morning in America.” Even though Jimmy Carter never actually used the word “malaise,” the contrast between Reagan’s simplistic optimism and Carter’s grim realism was crucial to Reagan’s victory in 1980. If Santorum and Gingrich were really the apostles of Reaganism they claim to be, you’d never know it from their speeches to CPAC.

Santorum spoke first. He brought his wife and five of his children to stand behind him on stage. Wearing his trademark sour puss, Santorum was framed by his wife and two older daughters. The Santorum women all sported assertively unfashionable haircuts and baleful, immobile facial expressions. Santorum gloomily catalogued the nation’s failings, imputing dishonest motivations to Democrats. “[The Obama administration is] using this façade of man-made global warming to gain control of the energy and manufacturing sectors…. They scare you to intimidate you into giving them more power.” Then, in violation of Reagan’s famous Eleventh Commandment (“Thou shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican”) he listed his chief opponents’ flaws and apostasies. “Why would moderates vote for a candidate who the party is not excited about?” he demanded.

Speaking last, Gingrich was a ball of furious anger. He inveighed against much of the Republican Party. “For the Republican establishment, managing the decay is preferable to changing the trajectory. That’s why the Republican establishment—whether it’s in 1996 or 2008—can’t win a presidential campaign.” He is even harder on President Obama, using language that some might view as a dog whistle to birthers and other conspiracy theorists. “He will wage war on Catholic Church the day after he is re-elected,” Gingrich predicted. “We should not trust him; we know who he really is and we should show the country who he really is.” Even Gingrich’s list of Republican achievements was framed in the negative: doubters said Reagan’s campaign and his Contract with America were quixotic, but we really showed them.

The contrast with Romney, who spoke in between his opponents, was dramatic. Even though Romney’s campaign and Super Pac have pounded Gingrich with unprecedented expenditures on negative advertising, Romney himself pretends to stay above the fray. He smiles when he speaks. He proudly recounts his personal and professional life story as an embodiment of the American dream. (Despite growing up in privileged circumstances, Romney credits his father for being self-made.)

“A lot of you [college students in the audience] became conservative from reading Hayek and Burke. When I was your age you could have told me they were infielders for the Detroit Tigers,” joked Romney. “My conservatism came from my family and my life’s work…. I know conservatism because I’ve lived conservatism.” Romney was sure to mention his “forty-two-year marriage,” and to boast of his business success. He talks about restoring America to greatness promising, “I will insure America remains the world’s dominant military power,” rather than fretting that we’ve already lost our place atop the global order.

In terms of how they played with the audience, it seemed as if each was roughly equally well received, although more people were desperately trying to get into the over-subscribed room to see Romney and Santorum than Gingrich. But this is the right-wing base, not a proxy for swing voters.

Ironically, it fell to Ann Coulter—who has made it her life’s work to obnoxiously ridicule liberals—to make the case to the crowd that Romney’s approach is the one that could win in November. Naturally, she invoked Reagan to do so. “Ronald Reagan didn’t win by calling Jimmy Carter a Kenyan, or a socialist,” she said in an obvious jab at Gingrich. “He didn’t say anything about Carter, he talked about Carter’s policies.”

When Ann Coulter has become the right-wing voice of reason, what does that tell us about the rest of the movement?