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Romney courts S.C. Republicans

Delivers speech to local convention

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney courted support for a potential presidential bid during a stop in South Carolina this weekend.

Local leaders said he is beginning to build his own political base like the other presidential hopefuls that have been drawn to South Carolina's first-in-the-South 2008 presidential primary.

Romney, attending a private dinner Friday night with 50 political activists in Spartanburg, ''wanted us to think about helping him with a ground game in Spartanburg County if that came to be," Spartanburg County GOP chairman Rick Beltram said.

Yesterday, Romney capped his weekend visit with a breakfast with state Republican leaders and a speech at the Greenville County Republican Convention, one of the state's largest local political conventions before the April 8 GOP convention.

Romney will be back in South Carolina next week with stops at The Citadel in Charleston and then to Columbia for a Lexington County GOP event.

Romney downplayed his presidential aspirations.

''My job is to activate the activists, to make sure we reelect Governor Mark Sanford and Republican candidates across the state," Romney said after the dinner. ''Before anyone's talking about running for president, we've got to concentrate on building our base."

Romney's visit a year ago created a stir back home after he told Spartanburg Republicans that same-sex couples ''are actually having children born to them. . . . It's not right on paper. It's not right in fact. Every child has a right to a mother and a father."

Critics said he was trying to appeal to conservative Republicans even though he had backed a change in the Massachusetts Constitution that would provide same-sex couples the same rights his state's law gives other couples, but ban gay marriage.

The South Carolina primary is two years away, but the campaign trail already is crowded.

Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee will address the Spartanburg GOP's convention Monday and will speak at York and Charleston county conventions in March.

In two weeks, US Senate majority leader Bill Frist of Tennessee will address the state Republican Party's executive committee. Senator George Allen of Virginia will head to Florence for a visit. Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Senator John McCain of Arizona have been making the rounds, too.

Democrats aren't on the sidelines. Senator Joe Biden of Delaware will be the keynote speaker at Democratic conventions in Spartanburg and Greenville counties on March 20.

State Democrats are trying to stay at the head of the primary lineup. State Democratic Party chairman Joe Erwin says he's continuing discussions with Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean for a primary in South Carolina.

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