SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- Governor Mitt Romney, addressing 350 Republicans in a speech here last night, decried efforts by Massachusetts Democrats to legalize certain cloning for stem cell research, blasted the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that legalized gay marriage, and praised Ronald Reagan and President Bush for their struggles against worldwide tyranny and higher taxes.
The 25-minute address, carried live on C-SPAN, won Romney a standing ovation in a state that is key to Republicans with presidential aspirations. The first-term governor struck a deeply patriotic and religious tone that he rarely takes in Massachusetts.
''Americans are religious; from our Declaration of Independence to our currency itself, we recognize our creator," Romney told the appreciative crowd at the Spartanburg County Presidents' Day fund-raiser, as he lamented the SJC's court ruling on same-sex marriage. ''The fundamental building block of American society is the family. Through the family we prepare the next generation. America cannot continue to lead the family of nations around the world if we suffer the collapse of the family here at home."
The speech, viewed by many in the crowd as Romney's initial step on the road to South Carolina's first-in-the-South presidential primary in 2008, was received with near-unanimous enthusiasm, and Romney was approached by several audience members afterward for autographs and photos. Some in attendance who had voiced skepticism about the electability of a governor from liberal Massachusetts emerged believing that Romney speaks the language of the party of Reagan and President Bush, whom he extolled as heroes in his speech.
''It was fantastic; you've got a good governor in Massachusetts," said Gary Towery, a Spartanburg County GOP committeeman who had initially fretted that Romney might be too liberal. ''He spoke to the crowd well, covered family values, economics, jobs, the life issue."
Senior Republican officials here seemed equally impressed.
''I thought it was a great speech. He touched all the bases, he obviously delivered it well, and he discussed all the themes that are important to Republicans," said South Carolina House Speaker David Wilkins, who played a key role in Bush's reelection effort here last year.
Romney has insisted since he entered the corner office that his only focus as governor is running the state and getting reelected in 2006. But, behind the scenes, Romney's friends and supporters have been working hard to ingratiate him with far-flung Republican audiences that could be crucial to a potential presidential bid. Last year, those friends established political action committees that donated more than $200,000 to Republican committees and candidates in 17 states -- $43,000 of it in South Carolina.
Rick Beltram, chairman of the Spartanburg County Republican Party, which hosted last night's event, said the upstate section where Romney spoke has emerged as crucial territory for Republican aspirants because it typically turns out about 60 percent of the state's GOP vote in primaries and general elections.
While Romney insists that he is not getting an early start on the 2008 presidential race, Beltram and other GOP officials last night said the crowd gathered yesterday with the sole purpose of sizing up Romney as a potential commander-in-chief. ''We're thrilled to have a potential presidential candidate here," Beltram said.
It was Romney's second out-of-state political speech in the past three days. On Saturday, he gave a speech at a Missouri State Republican Party dinner in which he touched on the same themes, saying he was ''the only red dot in an entirely blue state" and ''a cattle rancher at a vegetarian convention," according to the Springfield, Missouri, News-Leader. He used the same lines last night, drawing laughs.
As in Missouri, Romney last night singled out the issue of the cloning of human embryos for stem cell research as an affront to the moral order of life. ''Science must respect the sanctity of human life," Romney said to rousing applause. ''The creation of life for destruction is simply wrong."
On the gay marriage issue, Romney struck a pose of amused indignation at the goings-on in his home state, informing his audience that same-sex couples were getting married all the time there and that ''we've been asked to change their birth certificates to remove the phrase 'mother and father' and replace it with parent A and parent B.' "
''It's not right on paper, it's not right in fact," Romney said. ''Every child has the right to have a mother and a father."
In the introductory remarks last night, Romney and Massachusetts Republican chairman Darrell Crate, who also made the trip, endured jibes about the Bay State's overwhelmingly Democratic Legislature and congressional delegation.
To start the evening off, Beltram held up a map of Massachusetts, taking care to point out the Big Dig, where ''a lot of taxpayer money" has gone. Then, he held up a map that was all blue. ''This is what Massachusetts looks like today." He then pulled out a red Massachusetts map, and said, 'We'd like to help you do this.' "
Romney appeared as envious of South Carolina Republicans, who enjoy the kind of dominance here that Democrats enjoy on Beacon Hill.
''They have a lot of Republicans here, and they're enthusiastic," Romney said in a brief interview after the speech. ''They're great people here. Of course, there are great people all over the country and we have great people in Massachusetts, too, but it's nice to have a few more Republicans. I get encouraged when I come down here."
Romney got a less-than-enthusiastic greeting from one important Republican last night -- US Representative Bob Inglis, whose district includes Spartanburg County. Speaking briefly at the dais before Romney's address, he said that voters should not look so quickly to the 2008 presidential race.
''Let's not fast-forward too much," Inglis said.
But Inglis, in an interview, also seemed fascinated by the idea of a Bay State Republican: ''Bless him for being a Republican in Massachusetts. I just want to find out what one of those is like. If he was able to pull it off, that's very impressive. We'll have to rewrite the song 'New York, New York.' If he can make it there, he can make it anywhere."