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Pawlenty: Romney has the 'most knowledge,' 'capability,' 'electability'

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Appearing together for the first time as partners, not rivals, former presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty today announced he was throwing his support behind Mitt Romney for president.

Pawlenty introduced Romney today here, where Romney rolled out his plan for working with labor unions, after the pair toured Boeing’s new plant here -- the subject of a controversial lawsuit filed by the National Labor Relations Board.

Pawlenty, who will become Romney’s national co-chair and will travel with the candidate to Florida for tonight’s CNN/Tea Party debate, was effusive in his praise for his former rival.

“Mitt Romney has the most knowledge, the most capability, the most electability of any candidate in this race,” Pawlenty said.

Pawlenty did not always have such kind words for Romney. He has called Romney a “co-conspirator” on President Obama’s health-care plan, but said today that Romney’s commitment to repealing the program overrode any qualms he had about Romney’s own health-care plan in Massachusetts, often seen as a model for the president’s plan.

“He has 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,” Pawlenty told reporters.

Democrats pounced on the apparent contradiction between Pawlenty’s past criticism of Romney’s record on health care and his newfound support for the candidate, but a senior adviser to the Romney campaign told NBC News that Pawlenty's endorsement would help validate "why health care isn't the issue that everyone thinks it is in the primary."

Of course, Democrats have had plenty of former rivals endorse each other, including Hillary Clinton, who went to work as President Obama's Secretary of State.

Romney called the endorsement a “natural fit,” noting that the two have long been friends and their families had recently spent time together.

Both men downplayed the possibility of Pawlenty becoming Romney’s vice-presidential choice, with Romney calling such speculation “presumptuous” and Pawlenty saying he doesn’t want to be considered.

Besides announcing the endorsement, the primary purpose of Romney’s speech was to outline his labor policies. He framed them around the ongoing feud between the NLRB and Boeing, over its decision to locate a billion-dollar plant in non-union South Carolina.

Romney said the NLRB’s suit was an unacceptable example of the board’s interference in private enterprise, and of labor’s political clout with the Democratic Party. 

“There is without a question an egregious example of political payback where the president is able to pay back unions for the hundreds of millions of dollars they put into his campaign at the expense of American workers, of American jobs,” he said.

Romney’s plan includes several major points: Appointing “even-handed arbiters” to the NLRB more in line with Romney’s vision for the board; maintaining the secret ballot for workers voting on unionization; and prohibiting union dues from going directly to political causes. Romney would also overturn President Obama’s executive order giving preference to unionized workers for government contracts.

Romney also received a warm response when he said he would push Congress to pass legislation that would prohibit the NLRB from shutting down Boeing’s facility here. Congressman Tim Scott, a local Tea Party favorite here, has already proposed such legislation.

In a possible preview of tonight’s debate, Romney hinted that the “mulligan” he gave Texas Gov. Rick Perry over his efforts to require teen girls in Texas to receive an HPV vaccine might have expired.

Asked whether his own health-care mandate would preclude him from appealing to South Carolina conservatives, Romney defended himself by pointing to a number of less controversial Massachusetts mandates, including for drivers to own car insurance and for children to go to school. And another controversial mandate in another very specific state.

“Some states, Texas for instance, mandate that young girls, or did mandate that young girls, had to get inoculations for sexually transmitted diseases,” Romney said.

“There are a wide range of mandates, so that’s not breaking new ground. But what we did was right for our state, and simply wrong for our nation,” he added.