Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney made the first stop of his 2012 campaign here Monday, bringing along a surprise guest, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, and Pawlenty appeared before about 100 people in North Charleston City Hall shortly after Pawlenty endorsed Romney and agreed to help lead his national campaign.
Pawlenty called Romney "the most capable, most knowledgeable, most electable candidate in this race by far."
Romney's supporters here expressed optimism that he can win South Carolina -- and ultimately the presidential election -- by convincing voters that Romney is best suited to fix the nation's high unemployment rate and economic doldrums.
But skeptics likely to vote in the GOP primary still questioned whether he was conservative enough.
Like several GOP contenders before him, Romney toured Boeing's new North Charleston plant and got his first applause before the City Hall crowd by blasting the National Labor Relation Board's legal action against the company.
"We have no problem with unions. Unions can be productive in and helpful in keeping enterprises successful and thriving," Romney said. "(But) when a president runs over the principles of democracy to pursue an agenda which happens to be associated with the interests of people who donated hundreds of millions of dollars to his campaign, it is something we cannot abide."
Romney also talked more broadly about how he would right the economy, if elected.
"I want to make sure that the American people have the highest incomes in the world, that it's good to be in the middle class in America, that America is an engine of job growth -- that we're a job machine," he said, "and I want to make sure America is at the leading edge of innovation."
Former City Councilman Henry Fishburne and Republican National Committeewoman Cindy Costa were on board with Romney four years ago and said they remain on board this time. "I think he's the person America needs right now," Costa said.
Asked if he felt Romney could improve on his third-place showing here in 2008, Fishburne said, "I think the economic situation has changed, and I think he's the best candidate in either party to lead the country in economic recovery."
But other South Carolina Republicans, including tea party favorites Gov. Nikki Haley and U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, have not climbed aboard Romney's bandwagon.
S.C. Treasurer Curtis Loftis, who is leading Romney's South Carolina campaign, said he considers himself a tea party member and finds Romney's campaign "ideally situated" here.
"Mitt Romney is going to be the next president because South Carolinians are pragmatic," Loftis said. As South Carolina's GOP primary date nears early next year, Loftis said there will be less focus on gay marriage and other social issues and more focus "on how we'll beat Obama."
But others are less certain Romney can win over the state's conservatives, particularly in light of how Massachusetts' health care reform was a model for the national health care bill.
Romney said while Massachusetts' reform had a mandate, it is very different from what Obama did.
"As you also know, we have a health care plan in our state which has a mandate. I don't know about South Carolina's laws but in Massachusetts we also mandate that you have to have auto insurance," he said. "Don't pretend that what we did in Massachusetts was the same as what president Obama did. What President Obama did was raise taxes by $5 billion."
Jim Davis of the Charleston Tea Party said, "Most of what I hear is folks are skeptical, primarily because of Romneycare. He's not perceived as the most conservative candidate we could field. It does not make him a bad guy."
It's unclear if Romney will agree to appear before the Lowcountry's tea party groups, as other GOP hopefuls have.
Former Dorchester County Councilman and local tea party leader Mike Murphree said those events like to take candidates off their game a little bit.
"We don't want to do the 'Gotchas,' " he said, "we just want to hear your ideas unscripted."
Pawlenty, who had criticized Romney for how Massachusetts' health reform served as a model for President Barack Obama's national health-care reform, said Romney was right in trying to reform health care in Massachusetts.
"But he's also been very clear with me and very clear with the country that when he's President of the United States on Day One, he will do everything he can to repeal Obamacare," he said.
Asked if Romney would consider Pawlenty as a vice presidential selection, Romney said it's too early to begin such talk, but added Pawlenty would be a great addition. However, Pawlenty quickly doused such talk, saying, "That is not something I'm going to consider."