Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at an Iowa steel mill. (Scott Olson, Getty Images )
Reporting from Sioux City, Iowa, and Greenville, — Seeking to regain momentum in the GOP presidential contest, Mitt Romney hopscotched on Friday between two key early-voting states that pose quandaries for his bid, aiming his fire at President Obama while avoiding criticizing his Republican rivals.
"I watched our president over the last three years, shake my head and say he's over his head, he doesn't understand," Romney told voters at a steel mill in Iowa, where he said that bank regulations and healthcare reform championed by Obama harm small businesses. "I want to keep America the most attractive place in the world for every kind of innovation, investment and job growth."
Romney then flew to South Carolina, where he picked up the endorsement of Gov. Nikki Haley. The GOP candidates have aggressively wooed Haley, in part because she was one of the tea party's successes in 2010. Although South Carolinians now have only middling views of their governor, Romney's forces hope her endorsement will ease concerns about him among tea party voters.
"I'm planning that as you take a closer look at all the presidential contenders and give them a kick in the leg and get to know who they are that you're going to end up supporting me for the next president of the United States," he told hundreds of supporters who greeted him at a rally inside a firehouse in Greenville, S.C.
"I respect your governor…. A lot of us stood in line at her door, hoping for her endorsement. I could not be more proud."
Romney has long been strong in New Hampshire, site of the first primary on Jan. 10; he was governor next door, and its secular voters are more aligned with his approach. But different challenges arise in Iowa and South Carolina, where contests will be held before and after New Hampshire's and are weighted with evangelical and tea party voters who are cool to Romney.
Romney's Iowa strategy has been open to question all year. During his unsuccessful 2008 bid, he spent heavily on the state in terms of both time and money and was embarrassed by a second-place finish. This time, he paid scant attention to the state for many months, keeping expectations low while his campaign quietly lined up support. But in recent weeks, he has stepped up his appearances and said outright that he wanted to win the state.
Newt Gingrich recently eclipsed Romney in the polls, but his strength is showing signs of slippage under a barrage of attack ads from his rivals. The former House speaker raised eyebrows by taking a three-day break from the campaign trail beginning Friday, apart from a tea party telephone town hall Sunday.
A campaign missive on Friday acknowledged difficulties.
"The $9 million in negative advertising launched by Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and their supporters against Speaker Gingrich is starting to have an impact and we need the resources necessary to respond on the air in Iowa," wrote Michael Krull, Gingrich's campaign manager, in a Friday fundraising appeal to supporters.
In South Carolina, the stakes are high given the state's impeccable record of picking the eventual GOP nominee. Though Romney faces considerable odds there, his team is hoping for a better showing than in 2008, when he placed fourth with just 15% of the vote.
Asked what he would say to evangelical voters who remain uncomfortable with his Mormon faith, Romney said he believed most Americans would "choose a person based upon their leadership capacity and their vision for the country."
"I think people in America want to see a person who has a faith in a creator, who has a family, who cares about their family, shares their values," he told reporters in Greenville. "The great majority of our people don't decide who they are going to vote for based on the religion that they are a part of. And so I can only say for those for whom that's the issue, why, I may or may not have their support. But for the great majority of people I need to support me in this campaign, I think I'll get those votes that I need."
Romney's two-state campaign swing came the day after the final full-field debate before Iowa holds its first-in-the-nation caucuses on Jan. 3. During the face-off, Romney and Gingrich avoided going on the attack, though the candidates who are trying to claw their way into the top tier were happy to oblige.
On Friday, these candidates continued to try to upend the race. Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann kicked off a bus tour of Iowa's 99 counties, Texas Gov. Rick Perry resumed his 14-day criss-crossing of the state, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum continued his Hawkeye State barnstorming.
Texas Rep. Paul, who is polling well in Iowa but may have hurt his bid with a starkly isolationist foreign policy response during the debate, launched a one-day Internet fundraising effort — called a "money bomb" — on the anniversary of another such effort for his 2008 presidential bid, that raised an astonishing $6 million.
"Some experts say that incredible money bomb set off the modern tea party movement," Paul wrote in a fundraising appeal aimed at raising $4 million in 24 hours. "And if we can shock the world yet again, I'm confident the results of both Iowa and New Hampshire will bring the political establishment to its knees in just a few short weeks."