GREENVILLE, S.C. — Challenging Newt Gingrich’s claim to South Carolina, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney charged into the state Friday with a key endorsement from the tea party-aligned governor, a packed campaign schedule and plans to start airing television ads in the early primary state.
The show of force by Romney was a clear signal he intends to compete aggressively in a state that stymied him in 2008 and that Gingrich has made a cornerstone of his own campaign.
“It’s a real kickoff of a major portion of our campaign,” Romney told reporters after accepting an endorsement from South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. “I want to win in South Carolina.”
On Friday and in the previous night’s debate, Romney steered clear of pointed attacks on Gingrich, entering the final sprint to the Jan. 3 leadoff Iowa caucuses with an air of confidence after a week of assailing Gingrich’s leadership, judgment and temperament. That pivot suggested the Romney camp believes Gingrich’s recent rise in opinion polls may have leveled off.
The New Hampshire primary follows one week after Iowa, then comes South Carolina on Jan. 21. While Romney was still in Iowa on Friday, Haley announced she was supporting him as the best Republican candidate to take on President Obama in the battle for the White House next year.
South Carolina wasn’t kind to Romney in 2008. He spent millions here only to come in fourth after disappointing losses in Iowa and New Hampshire. Critics suggested his Mormon faith caused problems with the state’s significant conservative Christian vote.
On Friday, Haley argued that her state was past all that.
“South Carolina just elected a 38-year-old Indian female for governor,” said Haley, who was raised Sikh and converted to Christianity. “What the people of South Carolina care about is values and family and faith.”