Mary Ann Chastain, File, Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Mitt Romney spent lots of time and money in this early GOP primary state during his first presidential run in 2008, then bailed days before the vote when it became clear he wouldn't win.
He couldn't overcome deep skepticism of his Mormon faith in this Bible Belt bastion of evangelical Christians. His reversals on some important issues raised doubts, too.
Now, he's back and hoping to learn from that experience.
The former Massachusetts governor was making his first visit Saturday to South Carolina since taking the first steps toward a 2012 White House run.
He planned to discuss the economy during a stop at a plumbing company in suburban Irmo, focusing on jobs as he tries to reintroduce himself to Republicans with a pitch that he hopes will win them over this time.
"Stay on message," said David Raad, Romney's South Carolina adviser. "Remind folks why you're running. For Mitt Romney, it's about the economy ... That's what's important."
The lone adviser is the only sign of a Romney campaign in South Carolina, raising questions about how seriously Romney will contest the state given his rocky history here.
Still, Romney, who's expected to enter the race in the coming weeks, has laid more groundwork than others in a state where Republicans brag that they've picked the winner of the GOP nomination contest for 30 years.
In last year's elections, his political action committees poured more than $86,000 into campaigns, including $63,000 to Gov. Nikki Haley's campaign.
She supported Romney last time when she was in the Legislature, but is remaining neutral so far. Her endorsement would be a major prize.
In 2008, Romney positioned himself early as the one to beat, building a campaign rivaled only by Arizona Sen. John McCain's as the state's best financed, staffed and endorsed. Romney earned endorsements from U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and Bob Jones, the now-retired chancellor of Christian fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville.
But questions about Romney's Mormon faith dogged him. He couldn't persuade religious conservatives to look beyond their skepticism over that or his reversals on social issues such as abortion and gay rights.
Warren Tompkins, a Columbia political consultant on Romney's 2008 race, said the campaign team was "never sure how to deal with it. Hopefully, they will not repeat that mistake."
McCain won the state, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee claimed many of the Christian and social conservatives. Romney's team fled to Florida, a richer delegate prize, when polling days before the South Carolina vote showed that Romney wouldn't win or even come in second.
This year, religion is certain to come up again, particularly if Jon Huntsman, Utah's former governor and a fellow Mormon, enters the race as expected.
"I'm sure that people will consider religion in this race," Raad said, but he added: "We hope to get back to the issues that matter to a lot of Americans."
A fundraising group with ties to President Barack Obama launched a television ad against Romney in South Carolina in advance of his visit.
The ad by Priorities USA Action, which was founded by two former top aides in the Obama White House, criticizes Romney for supporting a House GOP budget plan that would privatize Medicare for future retirees. It also says he shifts positions on important issues.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the ad is part of a "smear campaign" and shows Democrats are trying to shift attention away from high unemployment in South Carolina and nationally.
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