By Tim Reid
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Maybe being the presidential campaign's symbol of capitalism isn't so bad after all.
After the two worst days of his run for the Republican nomination -- days in which even foes within his party branded him as an elitist job killer - former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney seemed to be on top of the world.
During an impassioned speech before cheering supporters in Manchester late Tuesday, the former Massachusetts governor and venture capitalist celebrated a convincing victory in the New Hampshire primary and vowed to keep his momentum going in South Carolina's contest on January 21.
Romney may also have been celebrating something else: a new bond with some conservative Republicans, who on Tuesday rushed to his defense in the face of attacks on his business record by fellow Republicans Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry.
Last weekend, with the New Hampshire vote looming, Gingrich and Perry seized on reports that Bain Capital, an investment firm Romney co-founded, had laid off workers while racking up huge profits at companies it took over.
Some companies bought by Bain ended up going bankrupt, with workers laid off, although a majority prospered. Gingrich, the former House speaker, accused Romney of "looting" companies. Perry called Romney a "vulture."
A group supporting Gingrich announced it plans to put out a video portraying Romney and Bain as symbols of corporate greed.
Meanwhile, Romney added to his problems during an appearance in New Hampshire when he answered a question on healthcare choices by saying, "I like to be able to fire people."
Thanks to YouTube, the video of Romney's appearance, combined with the Bain-related attacks, put what had been a steady, deliberate campaign into crisis mode.
By Tuesday, however, the conservative cavalry had come to the rescue for Romney, a moderate Republican who hasn't always been a favorite of the party's conservative base.
Decrying what they essentially viewed as Republican-on-Republican crime and an assault on the party's traditional support for free enterprise, conservatives such as talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh became surprise defenders of Romney.
A TOUGHER ROMNEY?
Limbaugh, who previously accused Romney of being an opportunist who isn't a true conservative, said the criticisms by Gingrich and Perry amounted to attacks against capitalism.
Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin, writing in The Washington Post, asked: "Why would Gingrich ... attack Mitt Romney on free-market capitalism, which is at the center of the modern Republican Party?"
Added Keith Appell, a conservative Republican strategist: "People who have not been predisposed to Mitt Romney (are coming) to his defense."
Meg Whitman, the former eBay chief who ran unsuccessfully for California governor last year, said the "anti-capitalist" criticisms of Romney were "bad for the party."
"We should be coming together now ... behind one candidate to try to take back the White House," she said.
After winning in Iowa and New Hampshire, Romney is the prohibitive favorite to be that consensus candidate.
However, the episodes in New Hampshire have exposed potential weaknesses in his campaign, and there are signs of a bruising, nasty battle in South Carolina that will pose new challenges to the frontrunner.
The good news for Romney: Taking a few punches in New Hampshire seems to have helped prepare him for the rest of the nomination fight, and for a general election campaign in which Democratic President Barack Obama almost certainly will target Romney as a symbol of corporate greed.
Romney seemed to acknowledge that during his victory speech in New Hampshire, to perhaps the biggest cheer of the night.
"President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial," Romney declared. "In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him. This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation."
THE CHALLENGE IN SOUTH CAROLINA
Gingrich, who is battling former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Perry to consolidate support among conservative voters, desperately needs a strong finish in South Carolina.
On Tuesday he signaled his intention to keep the heat on Romney, releasing a TV ad that assails Romney for his one-time support of abortion rights, something fiercely opposed by Republican conservatives.
The political action committee (PAC) supporting Gingrich - which has said it plans to spend more than $3 million promoting him in South Carolina - could also roll out the anti-Romney video focusing on his time at Bain.
CNN commentator David Gergen, who has advised Democratic and Republican presidents, said the "barrage of negative ads planned against Mitt Romney by the Newt Gingrich forces has become the wild card of South Carolina.
"The ads may work," Gergen said, "but there is a growing possibility that Romney can turn it to his advantage, becoming the champion of free markets."
Appel added, "if Mitt Romney envisaged himself as the nominee, he had to have been expecting these kind of attacks from the Democrats. It may be these attacks by his fellow Republicans have toughened him up a little bit."
Other analysts said, however, that portraying Romney as a job killer could be more effective in South Carolina - where the jobless rate is more than 9 percent - than in New Hampshire, where the rate is 5.2 percent.
In South Carolina, where blue-collar voters are critical, the image of Romney as a corporate raider could hurt him, said Charles Bierbauer, an expert on politics in the Palmetto State.
"It has the potential legs here that Romney is not the guy you want to create jobs in this state," Bierbauer said.
But, Bierbauer added, the only way to stop Romney in South Carolina is for conservatives to unify against him.
"An anybody-but-Romney candidate would come close if you had one candidate, a Gingrich or a Perry or a Santorum," he said.
"But I don't see that happening. The egos are too big."
(Editing by David Lindsey and Todd Eastham)