Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was in South Carolina Friday to celebrate an important announcement. The Palmetto State's Gov. Nikki Haley has officially endorsed him, just weeks before the South Carolina Republican primary.
The Romney campaign staged this event at a capacious fire station that was so crowded the chief had to bar the door when the crowd reached 500 people.
This marks the beginning of what the campaign says will be an aggressive battle for the hearts and minds of voters in a state that for three decades has identified who will be the Republican nominee. Romney will continue his South Carolina swing Saturday with stops in Charleston and Myrtle Beach.
'Already A Leader'
Jubilant supporters waited for an hour or more to hear the news from Haley herself. Looking out over a sea of supporters hoisting red, white and blue signs, Haley said Romney is exactly what a governor needs in a president.
"He's already a leader that knows what he wants to do the first day he gets into office, and he's ready to do it," she said. "So it is with great pride, great respect, great support that Michael and I are very proud to say that we are endorsing Gov. Mitt Romney for president of the United States."
Haley says she likes Romney's experience in the business world. She also likes his pledge to exempt South Carolina from President Obama's health care law if he lands in the White House.
Four years ago, Romney spent millions of dollars in South Carolina only to finish a disappointing fourth. However, he said if an upstart politician like Haley can succeed in South Carolina, so can he.
"I watched her campaign. I remember she was number four in the polls," he said, "and I'm planning that as you take a close look at all the presidential contenders — give 'em a good kick in the leg and get to know who they are — that you're going to end up supporting me for the next president of the United States."
Romney knows he still faces a tough, uphill battle in South Carolina, with Iowa and New Hampshire a key early contest for the GOP nomination. Right now, Newt Gingrich is leading polls here. Romney didn't even mention Gingrich Friday night, focusing instead on Obama.
"After he was inaugurated, he went on the Today Show, and he said, 'You know, if I can't get this economy turned around in three years, I'll be looking at a one-term proposition.' We're here to collect," he said.
In order to get the Republican nomination, though, Romney will have to cover a lot of ground in South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire in coming weeks.
Lauren Searcy, 22, was one of many supporters who came away with Romney's autograph Friday night. But even this backer thinks that Romney needs to be more visible if he wants to succeed.
"Just getting out and getting to know the people of South Carolina, like he was here [Friday]," she says, "willing to shake hands, take pictures, sign autographs ... do that more around South Carolina and get to know the people around here."
Some polls show Romney's Mormon religion is still a hurdle for evangelical voters in states like South Carolina, but Republican volunteer Jane Jones says she thinks Romney's religion is less of an issue than his patrician background.
"This reserved, well-mannered man, very polite, is just that. He's not being above somebody else," she says, "but it's being perceived as that."