IRMO, S.C. – Mitt Romney played to a crowd filled with veterans and military families at a school outside Columbia Wednesday night.

Part of Romney’s standard stump speech is thanking any veterans in the audience; the line drew polite applause for the handful of veterans at events in Iowa and New Hampshire, but The Palmetto State is heavy on military bases and retired personnel.

In Irmo, when he asked if there were any vets in the audience, more than a dozen hands shot up. “Wow, what a showing,” Romney proclaimed as the crowd broke into whoops and strong applause.

Romney then told a story about a trip he made to Afghanistan and Iraq as governor of Massachusetts, and a promise he made to a few soldiers there that he’d call their spouses to tell them their loved ones were healthy. By the time he left the country, he said, he had 63 families to call.

He said he planned to “bang out three or four calls” the day he got home, Memorial Day, but by the third call the woman who answered was unsurprised by the call because she’d heard through email from her husband that he was planning to call them all that day. 

“So I made 63 calls on Memorial Day,” he said to laughter.

Romney then turned the anecdote into an attack on President Obama and Democrats.

“I must admit, I was a little nervous about the calls because this was before the surge, this was when Joe BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenBiden: Trump family separation policy could make the US a pariah Elizabeth Warren can unify Democrats and take back the White House Giuliani doubles down on Biden comments: 'I meant that he’s dumb' MORE was saying we should divide the country in three. This was when Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidAmendments fuel resentments within Senate GOP Donald Trump is delivering on his promises and voters are noticing Danny Tarkanian wins Nevada GOP congressional primary MORE had said we had lost in Iraq. This was before Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaObama to visit Kenya, South Africa for Obama Foundation in July Overnight Energy: EPA declines to write new rule for toxic spills | Senate blocks move to stop Obama water rule | EPA bought 'tactical' pants and polos Clarifying the power of federal agencies could offer Trump a lasting legacy MORE got the chance to vote against the surge, saying it would never work,” he said.

The former Massachusetts governor spoke to a crowd of a few hundred in a warm, sweaty gym in suburban Columbia. The backboards of the basketball court were festooned with Romney signs, and as he shook hands with supporters Romney kept wiping sweat from his face, leading supporters at one point to fan him with his own signs.

He also attacked Obama on the economy, saying the president “looks to Europe” for his economic policies and attacking him for his “extraordinary disdain for the private sector.

“He says he wants to fundamentally transform America,” Romney said. “I don’t want to transform America. I want to restore America to the principles of our greatness.”

While Romney’s surrogates blasted Newt Gingrich throughout the day Wednesday, he made no direct mention of the former House Speaker. But while attacking Obama, he did take a veiled shot at attacks Gingrich and Perry had made on his private-sector record.

“I’m astonished at seeing [Obama’s] effort to replace ambition with envy and to poison the American spirit with class warfare. I have to admit that I’ve been very disappointed to see some folks in the Republican primary take out the same pitch and be critical of free enterprise,” he said.

Romney has led in polls of the state, but South Carolina’s deep conservatism makes it a hard state for him to win — he took just 15 percent there four years ago. Gingrich has gained ground in recent polls, with the rest of the GOP field way behind.

Romney appeared at the event with Secretary of State Curtis Loftis, a Tea Party favorite and longtime backer who has done much work for him in Columbia and upstate, the more conservative part of South Carolina where Romney has the toughest road to tread.