CHARLESTON — On a South Carolina tour with tea party darling Gov. Nikki Haley in tow, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said he can work with Democrats in Congress and still appeal to ultra-conservative tea party voters.
“I think as we go along, and tea party voters are going to get a closer and closer look at me as a candidate,” Romney said. “I recognize that (former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich) has a good lead here… but I think they’ll see that I’m a more effective leader.”
The tea party backing is important in South Carolina. That movement’s supporters are widely credited with sending Haley to office a year ago and also helping to elect U.S. Rep. Tim Scott, R-Charleston, to his first term in Congress.
Scoring Haley’s endorsement on Friday, Romney underscored his business experience, his desire to build up the military while downsizing the federal government during the Scott-organized town hall on the campus of the College of Charleston.
He also took digs at Gingrich, the apparent front-runner in South Carolina.
"I think people heard in the first debate that Newt Gingrich worked for Freddie Mac and made $300,000 as a historian," Romney said to reporters following the town hall. "Then it turns out he was paid $1.6 million and he was a spokesman. I think tea party voters will say 'Wow, this guy isn't really the guy he says he is.'"
Romney said he is most able to assume the presidency and build support in Congress.
“When I was governor of Massachusetts, I came in with a legislature controlled by 85 percent Democrats,” Romney said. “It turned out to be a good thing in some respects. You have to find a way to lead in a setting where not everyone is in your same party.”
That’s part of the reason Haley said she is backing Romney.
“It’s not just what you say, but what you do,” Haley said. “Gov. Romney has taken broken businesses and fixed them. … As governor, he cut taxes 19 times and balanced the budget with a … Democrat legislature.”
But in South Carolina, Romney’s image as a moderate has been an unfair liability, one voter said.
“I think some people think he’s not the most conservative candidate in the pool,” said Jim Rowan of North Charleston, a voter leaning toward Romney who attended Saturday’s forum. “He’s not the most boisterous of the candidates, but we need a president that can get people with different beliefs to agree with him.”
Though Rowan said he likes Romney, he has not decided which candidate to support. Others in the crowd said the same thing.
“I think it’s really between Newt and Mitt,” said Martin Chance of Mount Pleasant. “I want to vote for the one that can beat Obama. I like what Romney had to say about the military, and I think he can fix the economy, but I also think Newt can compete in the general election.”