Romney hopes to regain momentum in Florida

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Story highlights

  • Romney slams Gingrich on S.C. primary day for "assault on free enterprise"
  • He came into S.C. with high hopes, key endorsement, but support slipped rapidly
  • Questions about his taxes, reversal of Iowa outcome dogged him in S.C.

After riding into South Carolina on a wave of seeming inevitability, Mitt Romney was dealt a series of blows here that culminated with a disappointing second-place finish in the state's high-stakes primary.

Even before losing to Newt Gingrich by a large margin Saturday night, Romney's team began to look ahead to Florida, where the campaign hoped a big lead in fundraising and on-the-ground organization could help him regain his momentum.

In a speech to supporters here on Saturday, the former Massachusetts governor hit his rivals harder than in any other high-profile speech he has given this cycle.

Romney takes a setback and second place in S.C.

"We cannot defeat [President Barack Obama] with a candidate who has joined in that very assault on free enterprise," he said in a clear assault on Gingrich, who has criticized Romney's private sector experience at a private equity firm. "When my opponents attack success and free enterprise, they're not only attacking me, they're attacking every person who dreams of a better future."

Romney added: "He's attacking you. I will support you."

Romney's fall in the polls in South Carolina was dramatic and lightning-quick, as Gingrich surged in the last few days before votes were cast. Analysts attributed the former House speaker's rise in part to a well-received debate performance Thursday.

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But Romney also suffered setbacks, including the news that updated vote totals showed he had in fact lost Iowa's caucuses to Rick Santorum. He also struggled to answer repeated questions about his tax returns, which he eventually said he would release in April.

The aggressive response Saturday was the sort of thing Romney's supporters would have liked to see earlier, while his rivals were attacking him.

Supporters and donors both in South Carolina and nationally were grumbling Saturday that Romney¹s campaign badly mishandled how he responded to rivals' assertions that he release his tax records and that might have cost him the race.

While there was probably little that he could have done to stop Gingrich's momentum, four straight days of awkward answers on the tax issue kept the campaign from driving any message against Gingrich.

South Carolina's large complement of evangelical and conservative voters had long been considered difficult for Romney to attract, but after winning in New Hampshire he moved onto the Southern state with wide support.

He was joined at many campaign events by the state's governor, Nikki Haley, whose endorsement had been highly prized.

However, Romney's support dipped in the 72 hours before South Carolina's vote. An ARG poll released Saturday morning showed Romney down 6 points since Thursday and Gingrich up 7 points.

Romney was headed immediately to Florida, where he will speak at a rally Sunday in Daytona Beach. He'll participate in two debates there, one on Monday and the CNN/Republican Party of Florida debate on Thursday.

The state votes January 31.

      Election 2012

    • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage with first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden after his victory speech on election night at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

      A black man is returning to the White House. Four years ago, it was a first, the breaking of a racial barrier. Tuesday night, it was history redux. And more.
    • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage after his victory speech at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

      The 2012 presidential election shattered spending records, further polarized a divided country and launched a thousand hashtags.
    • Even though voters indicated to pollsters that their financial situation is the same or worse than it was four years ago, they put their trust in the president.
    • US President Barack Obama addresses a crowd of supporters on stage on election night November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. President Barack Obama swept to re-election Tuesday, forging history again by transcending a slow economic recovery and the high unemployment which haunted his first term to beat Republican Mitt Romney. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

      The president faces a long and familiar set of challenges after riding a wave of support from moderates, women and minorities to victory.
    • Republicans kept a lock on the U.S. House of Representatives, a crucial victory after the party failed to wrest away the presidency from Barack Obama and the Senate from the Democrats.