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."
Kevin Meetze, the plumbing company owner, said his top concern was too-generous unemployment benefits. South Carolina legislators are considering cutting the maximum jobless benefits workers can get from 26 weeks to 20 weeks. Meanwhile, Meetze said extended federal benefits are a problem.
"We've been hiring for the past couple of years during this recession, but it's hard to get people to come to work when they're making a pretty decent salary off the government," Meetze said.
When asked about moves to curtail state benefits, Romney said that was a state issue he wouldn't address.
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.
Romney came away with endorsements from Rep. Nathan Ballentine, an Irmo Republican who was Haley's state House colleague and remains a close ally, as well as from state Rep. Chip Huggins of Columbia.
Meanwhile, 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.
Romney says he generally supports the proposal offered by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan but details of what he will offer will be different.
"The Ryan plan and my plan are on the same page. We have the same objectives. My plan is different than his — it's not identical," Romney said.