Making what should have been a victory lap through Maryland on Wednesday, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was forced to defend his conservative credentials after an aide referred to his campaign as an "Etch A Sketch" that could be shaken up and erased for the general election in November.

A day after securing a resounding 12-point win in the Illinois primary, Romney spoke to a packed town hall meeting at an American Legion post in Arbutus, an event organized by former Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. But he was dogged by the aide's comment from earlier in the day, which opponents suggested underscored a lack of core principles.

"It's almost like an Etch A Sketch," the aide told CNN when asked whether Romney had been prompted to appease conservative voters so much that it would hurt his chances in November. "You can kind of shake it up, and we start all over again."

After focusing on the economy, gas prices and health care during the roughly 45-minute address and question-and-answer session, Romney returned to the floor in Arbutus again once most of the audience had left the building and tried to clarify the comment. He suggested that the aide was talking about organization, not issues.

"Organizationally, a general election campaign takes on a different profile," Romney said. "The issues I'm running on will be exactly the same. I'm running as a conservative Republican. ...The policies and positions are the same."

Maryland's primary is April 3. For a state that is typically fly-over territory for national Republicans, Romney's visit offered GOP voters a rare glimpse at a presidential campaign in action. Several hundred people packed into the post's main hall, which was decorated with a large sign promising "more jobs" and "less debt."

"I want to restore the economic vitality that would put people back to work and get gas prices down," Romney told the crowd. "I understand the economy, having lived in the economy."

Romney is the first presidential candidate to visit Maryland since primaries began in January, firing up Republican voters here who usually don't have a voice in choosing the GOP nominee.

"This is such a blue state that people just kind of overlook us — and some things need to change," said Katherine Calender, a Severna Park retiree who came to the event. She said she was leaning toward supporting Romney. "He doesn't come off enthusiastic sometimes, but we've had enthusiasm and where has it gotten us?"

Hours before he touched down in Maryland, the political action committee supporting Romney, Restore Our Future, confirmed that it would run the first presidential television ad in the state. The group will spend $464,000 on a statewide advertising campaign that questions Rick Santorum's record in Congress, a spokeswoman said.

Nationwide, the group has spent more than $10 million on ads for Romney.

The visit came at a pivotal moment for Romney, who has struggled to persuade skeptical conservatives that he is the best candidate to beat President Barack Obama in November.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, one of several prominent Republicans who had remained neutral in the race, endorsed Romney on Wednesday and publicly called for the party to coalesce around him. Bush, whose name had once been floated as a potential candidate, said that "now is time for Republicans to unite."

Romney has a significant delegate lead over Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul. In Maryland, he put together an organization early, securing the support of Ehrlich and other notable Republicans. Santorum, by contrast, did not field a full slate of delegates.

Santorum spokeswoman Alice Stewart, who spoke to reporters outside the event holding a mini Etch A Sketch, said that the episode showed that Romney's "credentials aren't true to his core." She also hinted that Santorum may make a visit to Maryland in coming days, but said details were not available.

Ehrlich, the chairman of Romney's campaign in Maryland, steered Wednesday's visit to the blue-collar suburb of Baltimore where he grew up. Romney was supposed to visit Arbutus when he was running for the nomination four years ago, but he ultimately dropped out of the race days before the state's voters went to the polls.

"He's really on," Ehrlich said after the event. "He's strong, the money's coming in — it's really a high point in the campaign." Asked about the Etch A Sketch issue, Ehrlich said, "It's wins and delegates and fundraising — it's nothing else."

Maryland allocates 24 of its delegates by congressional district — three per district —meaning that a candidate can win some delegates even if he fails to win the state's popular vote. Another 10 delegates will be chosen at the state party's convention next month. Those delegates will go to the candidate who wins the primary. The three remaining delegate positions will be filled by state party officials.

With no independent polling of the race in Maryland, it's not clear how much Romney's early organization will pay off. But even Democratic officials said they expect the former Massachusetts governor to win here, so they directed their fire at him Wednesday.

Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House Democratic whip from Southern Maryland, criticized Romney's economic policies, suggesting that they were a retread of those pushed by former President George W. Bush. But Hoyer nonetheless said Romney is positioned to win the state.

"I don't think that, frankly, in Maryland there will be a group of Republicans who I think will think Santorum reflects their positions," he said. "In Maryland, the suburban voter tends to be more of a moderate."

Romney has secured more political campaign contributions from Maryland than any other GOP candidate — $975,432 — according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Ehrlich said no fundraising events were planned as part of Wednesday's visit.

Among those attending Wednesday was Jason Boisvert, a 27-year-old resident of Rosedale in Baltimore County. He said there are some things he likes about Gingrich — "when he's on, he's on," Boisvert said.

"But when he's off, it's a disaster," he added. Overall, Boisvert said, Romney is the most "balanced."

john.fritze@baltsun.com