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Romney, in S.C., courts Tea Party

By Matt Viser
Globe Staff / September 6, 2011

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COLUMBIA, S.C. - Mitt Romney traveled to this conservative state yesterday and stepped up his courtship of Tea Party supporters, as the intensifying GOP presidential campaign entered the fall political season.

The former Massachusetts governor, who until now has mostly ignored the Tea Party movement, made an appeal to social and religious conservatives in a state in which politics are guided by both.

At a Tea Party-backed forum for GOP candidates, Romney was asked about the decision-making process he would bring to the White House.

“I go on my knees,’’ said Romney, who rarely brings up religion and his Mormon faith. “I’m a person of faith and I look for inspiration. . . . And then, with all that God has endowed you - with your mind, with your values - you make that decision.’’

Romney said he also confers with his wife, Ann, on some decisions and analyzes data involving the issue.

Romney reaffirmed his opposition to abortion rights and gay marriage, and said any vice presidential pick probably would hold those views as well.

He is set to outline in detail his economic recovery blueprint in a speech today in Las Vegas, which he said in a commentary in USA Today will include a plan to eliminate capital gains and other taxes on the middle class.

During the last year, Romney has generally played down his stances on social issues, seeking to focus instead almost exclusively on his economic views.

But with the emergence of Governor Rick Perry of Texas - who has replaced Romney atop the polls and started harnessing much of the GOP’s Tea Party energy - Romney shifted direction, attending the forum here that was not previously on his schedule.

The Palmetto Freedom Forum, sponsored by the American Principles Project, was hosted by several Tea Party movement kingmakers, including Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Representative Steve King of Iowa. It marked one of the most visible ways that the Tea Party movement, which prides itself on having no central organization, is hoping to exert its influence on the Republican field.

Also appearing at the forum were Representative Ron Paul of Texas, former House speaker Newt Gingrich, and businessman Herman Cain.

Perry abruptly canceled his appearance here yesterday to return to his home state to monitor raging wildfires. It would have been the first time Romney and Perry - top rivals who sharply differ in both style and substance - would have appeared together. Instead, their first appearance on a debate stage together will be tomorrow night at the Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

But Perry didn’t let the day go by without taking a swipe at Romney.

“There’s going to be some that get up and say, ‘Well, I’ve created jobs.’ And that’s true,’’ Perry said yesterday morning at a town hall meeting in Conway, S.C., before leaving for Texas. “There’s one in particular that’s created jobs all over the world. But while he was the governor of Massachusetts, he didn’t create very many jobs.’’

Perry has increasingly focused on his job-creation record in Texas - four out of every 10 jobs created nationwide over the past two years have been in the Lone Star State - and contrasted that with Romney’s record in Massachusetts, when the state ranked 47th in the nation.

Romney has countered that his experience as a venture capitalist is more valuable, and tweaked Perry by saying current problems can’t be solved by “career politicians.’’

Romney, making a detour on his way to the debate, will be in Las Vegas to begin presenting what he promises will be 59 specific proposals on the economy, including 10 actions that he would take on his first day in office.

The campaign is also releasing a 161-page book today that outlines his proposal.

He will call for the elimination of taxes on interest, dividends, and capital gains for middle-income taxpayers. He also plans to call for a “Reagan Economic Zone’’ - named for the former president and Republican hero - that would, in part, help punish countries like China for unfair trade policies.

He also reiterated in the USA Today article some of the approaches he has called for in the past, such as a constitutional amendment that would require a balanced federal budget.

Romney, who has argued that he offers the most hope for Republican primary voters worried about the economy, has generally avoided offering specifics on what he would do if he were in the White House.

But now he is beginning a more concerted effort to set the terms of the debate, with his planned address on the economy timed the day before the California debate and two days before President Obama makes a speech on the economy before a joint session of Congress.

With much of the media attention in the race focused on Romney and Perry, Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and her supporters have been seeking to present her as a more conservative alternative.

“There is an honest conservative - and she’s not Rick Perry,’’ said a television ad running in South Carolina that was sponsored by a pro-Bachmann group, Keep Conservatives United.

Bachmann said at yesterday’s forum that she would favor getting rid of the US Department of Education. She said she would lower the corporate tax rate to at least 20 percent, and would eliminate a tax on profits earned abroad by American corporations, which are now subject to a 35 percent tax when those profits are brought back to the United States.

Perry has also endorsed that idea, although only for five years if the money was “clearly going for job creation.’’ Romney has called for an unspecified temporary reduction in taxes on foreign profits.

Bachmann yesterday also reiterated her criticism of Romney’s health care plan in Massachusetts, saying she believed any plan that includes a mandate that residents obtain insurance - even one passed at the state level - is unconstitutional.

“I believe it is also unconstitutional for states to mandate as a condition of citizenship that an individual would have to purchase a product or service, even at the state government’s behest,’’ she said. “I believe it’s inherent in the [federal] constitution.’’

She could not cite a constitutional provision that a state-based law would violate.

Romney defended his health care record, saying it “will be one of my best assets if I’m able to debate President Obama’’ because he will contrast the Massachusetts plan, which Romney supports, with the national plan, which he opposes.

During questioning from panelists, Romney stepped up his criticism of the Dodd-Frank legislation that Congress passed last year in an attempt to curb risky practices on Wall Street and in America’s banking system.

Romney went on to say that some regulation was warranted, but did not go into specifics.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.