COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Mitt Romney spent a ton of money and a ton of time in this early GOP primary state during his first presidential run only to bail from it just days before the 2008 vote when it became clear he wouldn't win.
He couldn't overcome deep skepticism of his Mormon faith in this Bible Belt bastion of evangelical Christians. And his earlier policy reversals raised doubts.
Now, he's back.
The former Massachusetts governor is making his first visit to South Carolina on Saturday since taking the first formal steps toward a second bid earlier this year. At a plumbing company in nearby Irmo, Romney planned to talk about the economy and try to reintroduce himself to Republicans here with a pitch he hopes will win them over in a way he didn't four years ago.
The game plan this time? Focus on jobs.
"Stay on message," said David Raad, Romney's South Carolina adviser. "Remind folks why you're running. For Mitt Romney, it's about the economy ... That's what's important."
He argued that Romney is "not going to run away from anything" and added: "We're going to see him more."
The lone adviser is the only sign of a Romney campaign in South Carolina, which will be among the first states to hold a nominating contest next winter, raising questions about just how seriously Romney will contest the state this time around given his rocky history here.
Still, Romney has laid more groundwork in South Carolina for a 2012 bid than others in a state where Republicans brag they've picked the winner of the GOP nomination contest for 30 years.
In last year's elections, his political action committees poured more than $86,000 into campaigns, including $63,000 to Gov. Nikki Haley's campaign. Romney also made four visits to the state in 2009 and 2010, primarily to campaign on behalf of other Republicans like Haley.
She supported Romney last time but is remaining neutral so far. Her endorsement would be a major prize.
Back then, Romney positioned himself early as the one to beat, building a campaign rivaled only by John McCain's as the state's best financed, staffed and endorsed. He won key endorsements from U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and Bob Jones, the now-retired chancellor of Christian fundamentalist Bob Jones University in Greenville.
But questions about his Mormon faith dogged him everywhere he went, and he couldn't convince religious conservatives to look beyond their skepticism over that or his reversals on cultural issues like abortion rights and gay rights.
Warren Tompkins, a Columbia political consultant on Romney's 2008 campaign, recalls the faith issue always stalking. "They were never sure how to deal with it," he said of Romney's team. "Hopefully, they will not repeat that mistake."
In the end, McCain won the state, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee claimed many of the Christian and social conservatives. Romney's team fled to Florida, a richer delegate prize, when primary polling days before the voting showed that Romney wouldn't win or even come in second.
This year, religion is certain to come up again, particularly if Jon Huntsman, Utah's former governor and fellow Mormon, enters the race as expected, and Romney's team expects as much.
"I'm sure that people will consider religion in this race," Raad said, but he added: "We hope to get back to the issues that matter to a lot of Americans."
Romney is expected to officially enter the race in the coming weeks.
Democrats aren't waiting.
A fundraising group with ties to President Barack Obama launched a television ad against Romney in South Carolina in advance of his visit.
The ad by Priorities USA Action, which was founded by two former top aides in the Obama White House, criticizes Romney for supporting a House GOP budget plan that would privatize Medicare for future retirees. It also says he shifts positions on key issues.
Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said the ad is part of a "smear campaign" and shows Democrats are trying to shift attention away from high unemployment in South Carolina and nationally.
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