Mary Ann Chastain, Associated Press
COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina wasn't kind to Mitt Romney in 2008, but the ex-Massachusetts governor and presidential contender is hoping for a better fate in this Southern bellwether in 2012.
He made his first trip to the state since forming a presidential exploratory committee, plying a crowd with mustard-based barbecue and boiled peanuts, photo ops with cute kids and meeting with business owners carping about jobless benefits and illegal immigration. He left with a pair of endorsements from state legislators.
If nothing else, the mustard-based barbecue was a bold choice in a state with loyalties split mostly between mustard- and vinegar-based concoctions.
A crowd of about 40 in a hot warehouse stacked with plumbing supplies cheered when he said it was time for politicians to spend less time thinking about getting re-elected and more time on "thinking about how to get the country on the right track and put Americans back to work."
These are relatively easy times for Romney.
He hasn't formally entered the race though he's regarded as the front-runner. He's raising cash faster than likely opponents and gets to choose when to engage them. He's finessing the perception of his big liability: the Massachusetts health care law that Obama credits as the template for the national health care system Republicans abhor.
Saturday was a soft-opening of sorts in a state that beat Romney up in 2008. He spent loads of cash and time here, but bailed days before the first-in-the-South primary's polls opened and he knew he couldn't win.
In 2008, Romney positioned himself early as the one to beat. 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 campaign, 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.
Romney has a single staffer working in South Carolina, David Raad, who knows religion is certain to come up again, particularly if Jon Huntsman Jr., 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."
The economy is what Romney emphasized Saturday. He met privately with about 30 business owners in nearby Chapin before the town hall and barbecue buffet at the plumbing business.
Romney said he'd spoken with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, one of his backers in 2008.
She has told candidates they have to address the fight between the National Labor Relations Board and Boeing Co. over a plant expansion in North Charleston. The federal agency's complaint says the aircraft maker's move was a response to union strikes and a violation of law.
Romney said the NLRB was taking away South Carolina's ability to compete for jobs.
"How in the world can the president justify the federal government taking power from South Carolina and not allowing South Carolina to compete on a fair and level playing field," Romney said. "It's simply unexcusable."
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