(CNN) – Mitt Romney has stayed out of several hot Republican primaries this year, but he's wading into a high profile one in South Carolina.
Romney endorsed state Rep. Nikki Haley's bid for governor on Tuesday, calling her "a person of character and as the spokesperson for a new generation of leadership for South Carolina."
Haley, a protege and ideological ally of the fiscally conservative Gov. Mark Sanford, is cashing in a chip from the last presidential race: she supported the former Massachusetts governor when he ran for the White House in 2008.
Romney will campaign for Haley in the Palmetto State on April 1 - a visit that will give him a chance to greet supporters in a key primary state as he plots a second presidential bid.
By backing Haley, Romney is also breaking with the consulting firm that managed his unsuccessful South Carolina campaign in 2008. That team is now running Barrett's race.
Haley, an Indian-American state legislator from conservative Lexington County, trails her GOP opponents in the polls and has struggled to boost her profile statewide. But she has attracted the support of national small government activists hungry for fresh faces in the Republican party.
Haley is fighting for the GOP nomination against Attorney General Henry McMaster, Lieutenant Gov. Andre Bauer and Rep. Gresham Barrett - all of whom can also boast support from national Republican figures. Sen. John McCain has raised money for McMaster, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee has endorsed Bauer and former Sen. Rick Santorum has campaigned for Barrett.
The leading candidates for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination are state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and state Sen. Vincent Sheheen.