Mitt Romney, the front-runner for the Republican U.S. presidential nomination, got some help from South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley on Wednesday in pushing back against charges from his rivals that he was a corporate raider.
Romney launched his campaign for South Carolina ahead of the state's Jan. 21 primary by appealing for the support of conservatives worried about President Barack Obama's handling of the U.S. economy. Romney has won the first two contests in the state-by-state battle for his party's nomination to face Obama, a Democrat, on Nov. 6.
He came to South Carolina under fire from rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry for his work at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that bought and restructured companies, sometimes resulting in the loss of jobs.
Gingrich used the closing days of the New Hampshire primary, which Romney won soundly on Tuesday, to denounce Romney as a heartless corporate raider who enjoyed cutting jobs while amassing a fortune as a private equity executive.
It is a theme he and Perry are using to try to stop Romney from making South Carolina his third consecutive victory, which would put the former Massachusetts governor on a path to winning the nomination.
Haley, who endorsed Romney weeks ago to the chagrin of rivals who had courted her, denounced what she called an assault against America's free enterprise system.
Haley introduced Romney at the first rally of a 10-day sprint to the primary.
"I'm proud of all of our Republican candidates," she said. "But we have a real problem when we have Republicans talking like dang Democrats against the free market," she said.
"We believe in the free market," she said to cheers from several hundred people gathered for the event.
Romney presented himself as the best candidate with the chance to defeat Obama in November's election, a theme he sounded in his New Hampshire victory speech on Tuesday night.
"I love this country," Romney told several hundred people. "I have to tell you I know we're going through tough times, and that's because of the failure of one man. That's why he's got to go."
Ticking off the country's economies, high unemployment and rising debt, Romney said: "I think you have to say this has been a failed presidency. I don't think he has tried to make it bad. I just think he doesn't know what to do."
In the audience was Cari Thompson, 40, a substitute teacher, who said she is attracted to Romney because of his business experience rather than social conservative issues that Perry and Rick Santorum are emphasizing.
"I like social issues, but its about the economy. I'm not so worried about social issues right now," she said.
The most recent CNN/Time poll gives Romney at lead in South Carolina of 37 percent, with Santorum at 19 percent and Gingrich at 18 percent.
Romney, who has been criticized by some conservatives as a political moderate, has conceded that he will face a tough fight in the reliably Republican state, where he fared poorly during his 2008 presidential campaign.
"Clearly I face more of an uphill battle in South Carolina than I do in New Hampshire ... With regards to South Carolina, last time I came in fourth. Our team recognizes this is going to be a challenge," Romney said before flying to South Carolina on Wednesday.
(Additional reporting by Kristina Cooke; Editing by Paul Simao)
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