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Romney Touts Conservative Credentials in S.C.

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- In a speech Thursday night to the Lexington County Republican Party, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney (R) left little doubt about how he will position himself ideologically if -- as expected -- he joins the 2008 presidential race.

Mitt Romney speaking at The Citadel during his trip to South Carolina this week (AP).

"I am a conservative Republican governor of the bluest state in the country," Romney said by way of introduction to the crowd of approximately 240 people gathered at the Columbiana Hotel and Conference Center.

Romney's speech marked his second trip to the Palmetto State in the space of a week (he was in Spartanburg last Friday) -- a schedule that makes clear the importance he places on running strong in the state's 2008 presidential primary, which will follow the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Playing to the conservative bent of the South Carolina Republican electorate, Romney dedicated much of his 32-minute speech to red-meat issues.

On his support for English-immersion classes in Massachusetts: "In America people need to speak English if they are going to be successful."

On same-sex marriage: "Marriage is primarily about the nurturing of children. A child benefits from having a mother and a father."

On abortion, Romney stated his belief in the sanctity of human life -- a stance that many critics argue he has reversed since first running for office against Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) in 1994.

(For more on the alleged Romney flip-flop on abortion, check out Lee Bandy's column in this morning's State newspaper. Bandy is the leading political reporter in South Carolina.)

Asked after the speech whether his background as a Massachusetts governor and Mormon might hurt his chances of appealing to South Carolina's evangelical voters, Romney said that while "people want to see their leaders as people of faith ... they don't put much significance in the brand."

The Massachusetts governor also sought to use humor to connect with the conservative audience. He recounted a question he received earlier in the day during an appearance at The Citadel, the state-run military school made famous in part as the inspiration for Pat Conroy's novel, "The Lords of Discipline." Telling the story, Romney said he was asked about Johnny Damon's decision to leave the Boston Red Sox for the New York Yankees. "It just proves I have something in common with people in South Carolina," Romney said he responded. "We both hate Yankees." The remark drew a laugh from the crowd.

After concluding his speech, Romney was given a gift basket, which prompted a "thanks y'all" from the Northeasterner.

Romney received a positive -- if not overwhelming -- response to his address, which he delivered without the aid of notes. His speech was attended by several staffers expected to form the core of his 2008 inner circle, including Trent Wisecup, the director of Romney's Commonwealth political action committee, spokeswoman Julie Teer and Commonwealth PAC finance director Spencer Zwick.

Check The Fix next week for a full report on the Republican state of play in South Carolina for 2008. Earlier this week I filed from S.C. on Gov. Mark Sanford and the GOP challenger to Rep. John Spratt.

By Chris Cillizza  |  February 24, 2006; 3:28 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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