By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - He is being maligned as a "vulture" capitalist who enjoyed firing workers - while amassing his own huge fortune - but rivals' attacks on Mitt Romney's business record may be one of the best things that ever happened to his presidential campaign.
Charges that Romney's private equity firm Bain Capital got rich by buying and selling companies are winning the former Massachusetts governor new support from party leaders worried that the onslaught might weaken the front-runner in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
There has been little evidence to date that the attacks have hurt Romney, least among Republican primary voters. He leads in polls in South Carolina, which holds its primary on January 21, and won nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Despite his $270 million fortune, Romney has become more of a sympathetic figure to some in his party. Senior Republican figures have rallied around Romney against rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, who led some of the attacks.
"You're seeing people who haven't really traditionally been Romney supporters ... who are standing up and saying, 'Well, wait a second,' and that definitely helps Romney," said Republican strategist Doug Heye, former communications director of the Republican National Committee.
Romney scored points over Gingrich on Friday when the former House of Representatives speaker backed down and called on a group that funded a controversial anti-Romney video documentary to either correct it or cancel it.
Comments that Romney is a "vulture" capitalist also cost Texas Governor Perry a big South Carolina backer when investment fund executive Barry Wynn switched to Romney.
"I think the time has come when we really need to consolidate and pick a winner and also make sure that we're the party that's going to fight and support free-market capitalism," Wynn told The Washington Post.
Two other top state Republicans, businessman Peter Brown and attorney Kevin Hall, who had publicly voiced disappointment with the Republican field, also backed Romney this week.
GOOD TIMING FOR ROMNEY
The onslaught over Romney's record at Bain also exposes his team early to questions about his business record. If he wins the nomination, Romney will have experience crafting a strong response to an attack line that Democrats are sure to count on in the general election against President Barack Obama.
"In the end, it will make him a strong, better candidate and will prepare him for the fall much better," Jim Duffy, a Democratic strategist, said.
The conservatives' embrace of Romney comes after months of coolness. Some on the party's right-wing are wary of Romney over moderate positions he staked out as governor of a liberal state.
Crucially, the attacks won Romney support from Jim DeMint, a South Carolina senator popular with the anti-government Tea Party and a South Carolina kingmaker.
DeMint is not making a presidential endorsement, but the conservative's defense of Bain's record can only help Romney in the conservative, southern, evangelical Christian state.
A Romney victory in South Carolina could end his rivals' hopes of halting his march to the Republican nomination. The winner of the state's primary has become the Republican nominee in every election since 1980.
"He's (DeMint's) defending Romney for being a capitalist. And I think in South Carolina that is far more than the Romney people ever thought they'd get out of DeMint," Duffy said.
Obama campaign aides said they were delighted Republicans - normally staunch defenders of all things business - were bashing Romney's business record, the centerpiece of his presidential campaign at a time when the weak economy - and how to rejuvenate it - is dominating politics.
Republicans and Democrats have been attacking Romney as out of touch with average American workers' concerns because of his comment while campaigning in New Hampshire this week that "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me."
And the attacks have intensified during campaigning in South Carolina.
"They're just vultures. They swoop in, eat the carcass and leave the skeleton," said Perry, who trails far behind Romney in the race for the nomination to oppose Democratic President Barack Obama in November.
Backers of Gingrich have made a videotape about Bain featuring poignant interviews with laid-off workers and are running tough ads in South Carolina bashing Romney over his past support for abortion rights and his record at Bain.
Some strategists said the attacks could fade by the general election on November 6, with voters more concerned with pocketbook issues than Romney's past.
"Political memory is short," said Republican strategist Taylor Griffin, an adviser to John McCain's 2008 Republican presidential campaign. "And when voters go to the polls in November, it's a very long time for them," he said.
(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in South Carolina; Editing by Philip Barbara)