Mitt Romney campaigns with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley in Columbia,… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
Reporting from Columbia, S.C. — Taking his campaign to a state that spurned him four years ago that will serve as a crucial test of his appeal to the conservative voters in his party, Mitt Romney kept his focus trained on the economy and unemployment Wednesday – arguing that his private-sector credentials made him the best suited Republican candidate to defeat President Obama.
Romney’s top surrogate in South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley, echoed that message as she made her pitch for Romney and chided the Republican contenders who have been criticizing Romney’s work at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that he co-founded.
“We have a real problem when we have Republicans talking like Democrats against the free market,” Haley said. “We believe in the free market.”
Speaking to a crowd of several hundred South Carolinians gathered for an evening rally at a banquet hall, Romney focused on the state’s high rate of unemployment and continuing anxiety about the economy.
“It’s been a tough three years for people in the Palmetto State. Unemployment at 9.9%, still,” he said. “Remember the president was going to get America working again. He made all these promises he was going to repair the country, repair the world, he was going to get people back to work. He’s failed,” the candidate said to applause.
“There are a lot of people in South Carolina who are hurting tonight. They’re people who, a few years ago, were thinking about where to send their kid to college. Now they’re wondering whether they can put a meal on the table at the end of the week,” the former Massachusetts governor said. “These are tough times for Americans across this country. It’s a real tragedy in the wealthiest nation in the world.”
A day after his resounding victory in New Hampshire, Romney brushed off questions from reporters about how he would fare in more conservative South Carolina, noting that he had a good showing Tuesday night among voters who described themselves as “very conservative” and those who expressed an affinity for the tea party.
But he acknowledged that he was competing in a very different political terrain. “I’m facing more of an uphill battle,” he said before takeoff on his flight from Bedford, Mass., to Columbia, S.C. “Last time I came in fourth. So our team recognizes this is going to be a challenge.”
Romney was greeted in South Carolina by an onslaught of attacks from his Republican rivals on his private-sector experience at Bain. A "super PAC" supporting former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is financing a film portraying Romney as a greedy corporate raider, and over the last week Gingrich, Jon Huntsman Jr. and Texas Gov. Rick Perry have all suggested that Romney was relentless in his pursuit of profits, even if that meant layoffs and hardships for the employees of the companies Bain acquired.
Outside his event in Columbia, several men from a Democratic group flashed handfuls of fake $50 bills and carried black posters bearing the now-famous photograph of a youthful Romney and his Bain colleagues posing with dollar bills stuffed in their pockets. The poster, playing off the 1987 movie Wall Street, bears the slogan “Greed Is Good.”
On the plane Wednesday, Romney said he had always expected attacks on his experience at Bain from Democrats but was “a little surprised to see Newt Gingrich is the first witness for the prosecution.”
But, he added, “I don’t think that’s going to hurt my efforts. Frankly, if I can’t take a few shots coming from my colleagues on the Republican side, I’m not ready for Barack Obama.”
One of Romney’s biggest tests in the week ahead is whether he will be able to overcome suspicions about his Mormon faith among the many conservative evangelicals in South Carolina. Asked whether he was concerned about the possibility of efforts to disparage his Mormon faith – given South Carolina’s history of nasty campaigns – Romney repeated a line he has been using over the last week: “Politics ain’t beanbags.”
“I know it’s going to get tough and no one is going to be happy if things are said that are untrue, but I know that’s sometimes part of the underbelly of politics,” he said. “I hope no one associated with my effort – whether it’s my own campaign or anyone else supporting me – I hope none of them do anything that departs from the truth.”