Columbia, South Carolina (CNN) - South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley warned the GOP field against attacking Mitt Romney's private sector record at an enthusiastic rally for the Republican front-runner Wednesday.
"We have a real problem when we have Republicans talking like Democrats against the free market," she said as the audience cheered. "We believe in the free market."
- Follow the Ticker on Twitter: @PoliticalTicker
A former businesswoman, Haley appealed to the audience as fellow executives.
"We want companies to be able to do what is best for companies, and during tough times you downsize and you make hard decisions and during good times you expand and you help those businesses grow more," she said in her introduction to Romney. "That's what he's done. He's done what every one of us has tried to do."
Haley joined a growing chorus of Republican leaders who have voiced concerns about an increasingly bitter Republican primary race, in which Romney's career at a private equity firm has come under heated attack.
In appearances across the state this week, Texas Gov. Rick Perry has accused Romney of participating in "vulture capitalism" at Bain Capital. A super PAC supportive of Newt Gingrich has bought $1.6 million in advertising time in South Carolina to run a television spot critical of Romney's tenure at Bain, as the Republican primary shifts to the third voting contest.
Earlier in the day Romney said he was "surprised" Republicans had focused on his business career.
"I was a little surprised to see Newt Gingrich as the first witness for the prosecution but I don't think that's going to hurt my efforts," he told reporters. "Frankly if I can't take a few shots coming from my colleagues on the Republican side, I'm not ready for Barack Obama."
The audience at Romney's first South Carolina event was notably supportive, and the GOP candidate stayed for more than 30 minutes shaking hands with voters.
A CNN/TIME/ORC poll taken last week showed Romney with a commanding lead in the state, before the candidate won New Hampshire's primary.
But Romney played down his chances in the Southern state earlier Wednesday, calling his effort "an uphill battle."
"With regards to South Carolina, last time I came in fourth, so our team recognizes this is going to be a challenge," he told reporters.
Poll: Romney, Santorum tied with Obama in Florida
Gingrich fires up down South
S.C. Republicans plan presidential forum in conservative upstate
Santorum to spend fundraising haul immediately in S.C.
Nikki Haley approval rating now at 34.6 percent that speak its self
An underhanded Romney campaign attempt to stifle Romney's business record from public scrutiny.
If one has to be warned against attacking his private sector record,.. then it means there are plenty of skeletons in that closet. Romney and his Bain cronies acted like a bunch of carpetbaggers,.. pillaged and burned,.. and left a lot of misery in their wake.
and while Romney was making these tough decisions what do you suppose those people he dumped were doing? I imagin they were making some pretty tough decisions too. Romney and people like him in business have no concern about anything but profit. I am all for a free market. However, the way it is set up now it produces to many weak business'.
►Haley warns Republicans against Romney attacks◄
And she stands there and SHOUTS – MITTens, I got your back
And the reason why I am sticking with you so closely this time
Is because you are polling with number just a little better than mine
A LOSER backing another LOSER telling their LOSING PARTY that they need to stop attacking a LOSER!!!
Let's see, Nikki Haley's current approval rating in SC is around 40%. Now there is someone whose endorsement means a lot.
Sorry Ms. Haley but Mitt started the fight with Newt, and now he's gonna get to take a few punches back. What comes around goes around!
maybe these two should go hike the Appalachian right now. I hear it's beautiful in the winter.
Some challenge-with Rove, Kochs, Trikki Nikki, and their cohorts buying the election!!