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As part of his return to politics, Mitt Romney is choosing sides in the contest to succeed retiring Rep. Buck McKeon in Southern California.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and Republican presidential nominee, on Wednesday endorsed ex-state Sen. Tony Strickland, calling him an experienced legislator, devoted husband and father and a longtime community leader.

"Tony Strickland is exactly who we need in Congress," Romney said in a statement. "Tony led the fight against the Democrats' excessive budgets in Sacramento and worked to bring California's crippling deficit under control. He will do the same in Congress."

The crowded field of eight candidates in the June 3 primary includes state Sen. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, and Democrat Lee Rogers. Under the state's new primary system, the top-two vote-getters regardless of party advance to the November general election.

Democrats said Romney's endorsement underscored the misguided priorities Strickland would champion if elected to Congress.

"Tony Strickland would be nothing more than a lockstep vote for Speaker Boehner's reckless Congress that would end the Medicare guarantee, raise middle class taxes and give tax breaks to corporations that ship jobs overseas," said Tyrone Gayle, a spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Strickland is coming off a loss two years ago to Democratic Rep. Julia Brownley in the 26th district. He has maintained close ties to Romney over the years, serving as a state chairman for his presidential runs, hosting fundraisers on his behalf and hitting the trail to campaign with the Romney family in key swing states.

Strickland got to know 2010 California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman during Romney's first presidential run, and she recruited him to run for state controller.

Romney, a part-time resident of the seaside enclave La Jolla in northern San Diego County, has been laying low since losing the presidential race. One of his sons, Josh, recently took a photo of Romney waiting in line at a local post office to mail in his taxes ahead of the deadline.

A recent story on Romney's reemergence said he's publicly supported at least 16 candidates this cycle, many of them favorites of the establishment who backed his campaigns.

In Romney's latest endorsement, he said Strickland would fight to limit government spending and support economic policies designed to create jobs.

"He knows we cannot pass this unsustainable debt on to future generations, and Tony will face this problem head on so we can leave a stable, debt-free country for our children and grandchildren," he said.

Editor's note: Updated at 3:50 to add comment from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

PHOTO: Mitt Romney speaks to the VFW convention at the Reno-Sparks Convention Center in Reno, before a major foreign policy address before he embarks on an international trip in July 2012. The Sacramento Bee/Jose Luis Villegas



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