South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley speaks as Republican presidential candidate… (Rainier Ehrhardt / Associated…)
Reporting from Greenville, S.C. — Seeking to recapture his momentum in the GOP presidential race, Mitt Romney campaigned in South Carolina touting the coveted endorsement of Gov. Nikki Haley, a tea party favorite who he hopes will help boost his support among conservative voters in the South.
“We’ve been hoping for this for a long, long time,” Romney told hundreds of supporters who greeted him at a rally inside a fire house in Greenville.
The former Massachusetts governor said he had watched Haley’s endorsement on Fox while exercising on an elliptical trainer and that it had brought “a big smile” to his face.
“What she said brought me confidence that I’m going to be able to do in this state what she did in this state,” he said, referring to Haley’s come-from-behind win for the governor’s office in 2010.
“I respect your governor…. A lot of us stood in line at her door, hoping for her endorsement,” Romney said, adding that he “could not be more proud” to share the stage with her.
Haley’s endorsement was a coup for Romney, who trailed Newt Gingrich by 16.9 points in a Winthrop University poll of likely GOP voters in the Palmetto state this month. Gingrich’s rise to 38.4% in the poll was a surprising sign of strength in the South for the former House speaker, who had drawn the support of just 5.3% of likely Republican voters in South Carolina in September.
But noting the fluctuations in the Republican race, Romney said “Polls remind me a bit of going on a date.”
“They ask you who you are going to vote for, you put a name out there – ‘I’m kind of dating this person’ – and maybe you go steady for a while. But before you get married, you take it real seriously,” the former Massachusetts governor continued.
“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.”
Haley, who backed Romney during his 2008 presidential run, said she had seriously vetted the other candidates this time, and sought Romney’s assurance that he would not allow a federal healthcare mandate to go into effect in South Carolina. She praised Romney as someone who had managed to balance his state’s budget and cut taxes 19 times while working with a Democrat-dominated Legislature. She said she ultimately became convinced that Romney’s business experience made him the right leader for the times.
“I wanted someone that knew what it was like to run a business and Gov. Romney is someone that has taken broken businesses and fixed them,” Haley said during the rally. “He is someone that has taken a weakened Olympics and made it a source of pride for our country.”
Though Haley’s popularity has slumped in South Carolina since she was elected in November 2010, she was courted by nearly all of the GOP candidates. Romney made special efforts to win her endorsement – holding fundraisers for her in Charleston, Hilton Head Island and Boston during her runoff race in 2010 and joining her for several stops on her “Join the Movement” tour that October. His wife, Ann, spent the night at the South Carolina governor’s mansion in September at Haley’s invitation during a visit to the state.
Romney said he intends to win the South Carolina primary and as many of the state’s 50 delegates – “but who’s counting?” – as he could manage.
His team is hoping for a better showing than in 2008, when he placed fourth with 15.3% of the vote behind Arizona Sen. John McCain (33.2%), former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (29.8%) and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson (15.6%).
Speaking to reporters after the event, Romney acknowledged that he has significant hurdles in South Carolina, where some evangelical voters remain suspicious of his Mormon faith. Asked about what he would say to those voters uncomfortable with his religion, he said most Americans would choose their president “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,” Romney said. “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.”
Haley argued that Romney’s faith would not be an issue for her constituents – “the reason I know …is because South Carolina just elected a 38-year-old Indian female for governor of South Carolina.”
“What the people of South Carolina care about are values, and family and faith, and what you do,” she said. “You can look at the Romneys and you can see this is a family of faith, this is a family of values... I have faith in the people of South Carolina that's not going to be an issue.”