CHARLESTON, S.C. — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney made a strong play for votes in conservative South Carolina's primary on Thursday, campaigning there with two popular politicians who are backing his bid instead of remaining in New Hampshire ahead of its first-in-the-nation primary next week.
"He's got to do some work," South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told reporters after appearing with Romney and Sen. John McCain, the party's 2008 presidential nominee. "He's got to get on the ground, and with his message, he can win."
While the rest of the GOP field was in New Hampshire, Romney continued to show confidence by bolting for a state that doesn't cast primary votes until Jan. 21.
McCain touted Romney's family and support for military strength, key issues in South Carolina, where Christian conservatives and military veterans are influential in the GOP.
"As President Reagan said, `Peace through strength.' That's what Mitt Romney is committed to," McCain, a decorated Navy veteran and former prisoner of war, told more than 400 people.
McCain drew chuckles from the audience with a slip of the tongue near the close of his speech. "And so I am confident with the leadership and backing of the American people, President Obama will turn this country around," he said, inadvertently referring to the Democratic incumbent before repeatedly correcting himself with a grimace.
McCain has contacted supporters of his 2008 campaign who have endorsed other candidates, including former state Attorney Gen. Henry McMaster, who is backing Romney rival Jon Huntsman.
McMaster declined to say whether McCain asked him to switch his support, but he said McCain's backing will help Romney in the state where he placed a disappointing fourth in the 2008 primary.
In 2008, after campaigning hard and advertising aggressively in South Carolina, Romney saw little movement in his sluggish poll numbers and abandoned his bid in the state two weeks before the primary to focus on later primaries.
Romney has begun running advertisements and has locked up the endorsements of key figures, such as Haley and state Treasurer Curtis Loftus, a leader among the state's tea party supporters.
His visits have targeted the state's larger urban areas, which include more politically moderate transplants from other states, like Tom Kelly, a retired Air Force officer from Charleston who lived in Massachusetts when Romney was governor.
"He's standing on his record this time, not running so hard as a conservative. It's more authentic, and how we knew him in Massachusetts," said Kelly, who attended Romney's campaign event near Charleston.
It's a strategy similar to his plan in Iowa last year: Build on existing relationships, project a national image and ramp up late with the look of a top contender.
As in Iowa, some evangelical conservatives in South Carolina distrust Romney because of his changed positions on key social issues and voice discomfort with his Mormon faith. Some believe that Mormons falsely claim to be Christians.
Haley said she believes Romney's religion will not keep people from supporting him.
"This is a state that elected a 38-year-old Indian female. No, I'm not worried about that at all," Haley told reporters.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who finished nearly even with Romney in Iowa, has strong backing from evangelical conservatives. He also has campaigned aggressively in South Carolina, compared with Romney, having visited 26 times. Romney was making his eighth and planned to campaign with McCain in the state Friday.
Santorum was set to pour money into South Carolina advertising beginning next week. Fresh off his strong showing in the Iowa caucuses, he raised $2 million in the two days since the leadoff caucuses, aides said.