By KASIE HUNT
MAULDIN, S.C. — Mitt Romney didn’t win in South Carolina in 2008, but he’s back in the state and looking to capitalize on his strong position atop this year’s field of Republican presidential candidates. He hopes to sway voters who were cool to him four years ago.
The former Massachusetts governor’s mission recently became easier, as several rivals struggle to mend damaged campaigns ahead of Saturday’s debate on foreign policy.
Rick Perry is spending nearly $1 million on a national ad buy as he tries to recover from a gaffe in a debate earlier this week when he couldn’t name the third federal Cabinet agency he says he’d eliminate.
Georgia businessman Herman Cain, on the defensive over allegations that he sexually harassed women in the 1990s, spent Friday in New York.
Romney’s strategy is to maintain the steady, it’s-all-about-the-economy campaign that’s landed him in the top tier and, behind the scenes, prepare for any of his rivals to rise.
“I know there will be one or two others that will be doing well in the polls, that’ll be you know, be real contenders. That’s the nature of the process,” Romney told reporters after spending part of Veterans Day at a barbecue restaurant near Greenville, S.C.
“Whether it’s Newt (Gingrich), or Rick (Perry), or Rick Santorum or Herman Cain, I can’t tell at this point,” Romney said. “I just think that I’m in a uniquely qualified position.”
Romney spent most of his 45 minutes at Mutt’s barbecue listening to veterans describe difficulties with the Department of Veterans Affairs’ health care system or their trouble finding work after leaving the service. He also spent time prepping for the debate.
Perry was also returning to the debate stage, just three days after saying a “minor brain freeze” caused him to forget the name of the Energy Department.
Since then, Perry’s campaign has spent $975,000 to air an ad nationally on Fox News Channel. He’s also done a blitz of TV interviews — including David Letterman’s “Late Show” — and used humor to laugh off the embarrassing gaffe as a humanizing moment.
Perry marched in Veterans Day parade in Columbia on Friday, as did fellow GOP rival Michele Bachmann, the Minnesota congresswoman.
Perry rocketed to the top of some polls when he entered the race in August. But a series of less-than-inspiring debate performances have hurt him. National donors privately worry that he won’t be able to survive the gaffe.
“It’s not helpful,” Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad told The Associated Press on Friday.
Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, avoided the early voting states on Friday as he continued to face questions about the sexual harassment allegations. He was in New York for fundraisers, foreign policy briefings and interviews with Fox News Channel and the New York Post.
Cain conceded on Fox that his campaign might have to moderate its approach to the allegations. He has strongly denied the accusations against him.
“I’m going to dial it back from a 10 to a 9,” Cain said, referring to his oft-repeated assertion that he’s going to “let Herman be Herman.”
He also defended a joke he made Thursday in Michigan about Anita Hill, who accused then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearings.
Cain said Friday that he was approached at an event by a supporter who said Hill was trying to contact him.
“And my response was ‘Is she going to endorse me?”’ he said.
Cain said the supporter was trying to be funny and that he tried to respond in kind.
“I gave back a humorous response. It was in no way intended to be an insult toward Anita Hill or anybody else,” he said in an interview on Albany, N.Y., radio station WGDJ-AM.
Taken together, Cain and Perry’s woes have Republicans privately wondering about yet another conservative alternative to Romney: former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Gingrich spent Friday in New Hampshire but planned several appearances Saturday in South Carolina before the debate.
Gingrich suggested that Republicans are still searching for an alternative to Romney. He was referring to a new CBS News poll showing Cain atop the GOP field with 18 percent support and Gingrich and Romney tied at 15 percent.
“The 85 percent who have not chosen Mitt Romney, who have known him now for five years, I think are looking for a conservative activist who will stand firm and who will fight to change Washington,” Gingrich told conservative radio host Laura Ingraham.
Gingrich has ramped up his campaign efforts in recent weeks and is set to open a South Carolina headquarters Saturday. He has nine people working for him in the state, while Romney has just three paid staffers. Gingrich has been endorsed by the head of the Columbia Tea Party. Aides also say Republican Sen. Jim DeMint’s decision not to endorse in the primary is a boon for the former speaker. DeMint backed Romney in 2008.
But Gingrich is just the latest conservative candidate to begin to emerge as a possible alternative to Romney, who has held a steady though not breakaway lead in the polls and has run his campaign without major gaffes or problems.
Romney wouldn’t answer questions about Gingrich’s popularity Friday, saying only that his responsibility is to continue to talk about fixing the economy and creating jobs.
Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in Washington, Beth Fouhy in New York, Thomas Beaumont in Iowa, Jim Davenport in South Carolina and Shannon McCaffrey in Georgia contributed to this report.