Mitt Romney made a rare campaign stop in South Carolina Monday, touring the Boeing facility here with his newest backer in his bid for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Pawlenty, whose own quest to win the GOP nomination fizzled last month after he failed to win a straw poll in neighboring Iowa, said Romney was the most qualified and electable Republican candidate in the field.
“Electable” was the key word. As Pawlenty touted Romney during a press conference at North Charleston City Hall, he repeatedly used the word, saying Romney was the “most electable candidate by far.”
Recent polls show Texas Gov. Rick Perry has knocked Romney from his perch as the GOP front-runner, but Romney and his backers suggest the former Massachusetts governor is more electable than the fiery, controversial Perry.
Until Perry entered the race, Romney has been on cruise control, seldom even addressing his party’s headline-grabbing upstart candidates like Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann. Now, however, Romney must navigate over bumpy terrain if he is to win his party’s nomination.
Reaching that goal is not likely to include a victory in South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary, said J. David Woodard, a Clemson University political scientist who has worked with U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., who endorsed Romney in his 2008 bid for the GOP nomination but is neutral thus far this year.
But Romney could find the S.C. primary is a bit like horseshoes — coming close matters. “He probably doesn’t have to beat Perry in South Carolina,” Woodard said Monday. “But he can’t get beat (badly). He has to make a respectable showing.”
A respectable showing allows Romney to continue his claim to be a candidate with broad national appeal, rather than the tough-talkin’ Perry, who Romney’s supporters says will scare off independent voters and, as a result, fail to recapture the presidency for the GOP.
Touting Boeing in S.C.
While Perry’s religion and his Southern accent give him a natural currency in South Carolina, there is some fertile ground in the Palmetto State for Romney.
Boeing has become a touchstone for the GOP candidates, Romney included. The GOP candidates can’t say often enough or loudly enough how much they disagree with the National Labor Relation Board’s suit against Boeing for opening its 787 Dreamliner plant in right-to-work South Carolina, rather than unionized Washington state.
Romney said Monday that suit has had a “chilling effect on additional growth here in South Carolina.”
Organized labor officials, anticipating Romney’s remarks, blasted back.
“Throughout his campaign, Romney has shown that his priorities lie with corporations and the rich, not working people in South Carolina or across the country,” S.C. AFL-CIO President Donna Dewitt said in a statement.
For Romney, smacking the labor board around allows him to burnish his credentials as a former state chief executive who has business experience — just the kind of experience, he tells voters, that would help him create jobs as president.
“Employees must have the freedom to choose whether or not to support a union,” Romney said, “and business owners must have confidence that new investments and hiring will be profitable.”
Union membership across the country is near historic lows. But unions did back Obama in 2008, and Romney said the president’s labor policies are nothing more than payback.
“President Obama has pursued policies that benefit his Big Labor political allies at the expense of the economy,” Romney said.
Trying to exploit Perry’s gaffes
Perry himself, not Obama or the labor board, gave Romney another opening that could be exploited in South Carolina.
Last week, the Texas governor called Social Security a “Ponzi scheme,” an illegal criminal scheme that uses the money of newer investors to pay off older investors.
That attack fits the GOP line of blasting away at the federal government. But, while there is widespread belief among Republicans the federal government is a large part of the nation’s problem, older voters in South Carolina and Florida — two early-voting Southern states — are not volunteering to send back their Social Security checks.
Just under 13 percent of the U.S. population was 65 or older in 2009, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. But that percentage stood at 13.7 percent in South Carolina and 17.2 percent in Florida.
Romney could benefit if those older voters — turned off by Perry’s bombast — turn to him.
Polls have shown Perry is leading among likely voters in the S.C. GOP primary, set for early next year. Romney places second in those polls. Still, absent a Perry implosion, Romney is given little chance of winning the state.
Romney’s Mormon faith turns off some evangelicals. Then, there is the Massachusetts health-care bill that Romney signed that requires the uninsured to buy insurance. The health-care bill Obama subsequently signed into law, derisively called “Obamacare” by Republicans, also requires the uninsured to buy insurance.
Knowing how unpopular “Obamacare” is among GOP primary voters, Romney has pledged to do everything in his power to repeal the federal law if he is elected president. He spares no opportunity to say that he did what he thought was best for Massachusetts and that the legislation he signed is not similar to the legislation Obama signed. The president — mindful of the tweak he is giving Romney — disagrees.
Even Pawlenty once criticized Romney for signing the Massachusetts health-care bill. “President Obama said that he designed Obamacare after Romneycare and, basically, made it Obamneycare,” Pawlenty said on “Fox News Sunday” before he dropped out of the GOP race.
Pawlenty brushed off a reference to that dig Monday, telling Romney supporters in North Charleston that he and Romney are longtime friends who now are working toward the same goal — defeating Obama.
Businessman? Or flip-flopper?
Health care will require a political tap dance from Romney, but he’s no stranger to being on the dance floor.
For instance, Romney said Monday that he is “pro-life.” But, as a candidate for governor of Massachusetts, Romney repeatedly pledged not to interfere with a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion.
Last month, Romney also signed a pledge opposing gay marriage. But as a U.S. Senate candidate from Massachusetts in 1994, Romney said he would be a stronger supporter of gay rights than the man he was running against, U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy.
But it is Romney’s business experience, not his previous political positions, that seemed to matter most to those who came to hear him in North Charleston Monday.
“I like his business mindset and his global business policy, his understanding of economics,” said Tim Hilkhuysen, an architect who lives on Daniel Island. Still, that might not be enough to win the S.C. GOP primary, Hilkhuysen acknowledged.
“In this state, it’s going to be tough,” he said. “Nationally, I think he can do it. I think once people listen to the debates and hear what he’s got to say, they’ll be inclined to back Romney.”