By Steve Holland
COLUMBIA, South Carolina (Reuters) - Decisively beaten in South Carolina, Republican Mitt Romney signaled a tougher approach to newly resurgent rival Newt Gingrich on Saturday to get his 2012 presidential campaign back on track.
Romney's loss punctured his aura of inevitability as the eventual Republican nominee to face Democratic President Barack Obama on November 6 that he had built up after a narrow loss in Iowa and a victory in New Hampshire earlier this month.
The pressure on Romney following his loss in the South Carolina primary is to right the ship for the January 31 contest in Florida. It is a state with a more diverse, moderate electorate that may play more to Romney's strengths, compared to South Carolina where many conservatives felt he lacked Gingrich's fighting spirit.
"In Florida it won't be a total consolidation of the conservative vote for Gingrich," said Republican strategist Charlie Black. "The next several states are good for Romney."
Romney conceded that the state-by-state battle for the Republican nomination will now be a long one.
Romney's challenge is to avoid the type of distractions that dogged him in South Carolina, where his campaign got caught up in a controversy over when and if he would release his personal tax records.
Romney, one of the richest men ever to seek the presidency, earlier in the week acknowledged that his income tax rate is "probably closer to 15 percent than anything," making it lower than the rate paid by most wage-earning Americans. Romney has an estimated net worth of $270 million.
The tax issue allowed his lead in the state's polls to disappear and Romney bowed to a surge of late support for Gingrich, who seemed to draw a better connection with South Carolina voters.
SETTLE THE TAX ISSUE
To try to put the tax return controversy behind him, the Romney campaign has a plan to settle the tax issue next week, a Republican official said.
This will allow Romney to concentrate on what he considers a stark choice between his executive experience outside of Washington and Gingrich's experience as a high-flying consultant who has made a fortune as a Washington insider. Romney is a former Massachusetts governor.
Romney, in his South Carolina concession speech, was sharply critical of Gingrich for attacking him over his leadership at Bain Capital, a private equity firm that bought and restructured companies, sometimes resulting in job losses.
Romney said Gingrich had assaulted the free enterprise system and demonized success and prosperity. Nominating him would make it hard for Republicans to topple Obama next November, said Romney.
"Our president has divided the nation, engaged in class warfare and attacked the free enterprise system that has made America the economic envy of the world. We cannot defeat that president with a candidate who has joined in that very assault on free enterprise," Romney said, a refrain that he is likely to repeat at the first of two Florida debates, on Monday in Tampa.
The campaign is also pushing Gingrich to reveal more about his ties with troubled mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which paid the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives $1.6 million for consulting work.
Romney aides said they knew South Carolina would be a hard fight for him given his fourth place finish in the primary in 2008 during his previous unsuccessful run for the White House.
"Nobody runs the table," said senior Romney adviser Stuart Stevens.
But Romney has now lost two of the first three states in the nominating process.
There was not a sense that the Romney campaign was about to undergo any major changes in his campaign, unlike what occurred in George W. Bush's operation when he suffered a surprise loss in New Hampshire to John McCain in 2000.
"You have to take the long view and say, yeah, it's disappointing that we didn't sweep South Carolina, but the truth is that was never really the expectation until a couple of weeks ago when expectations got out of hand," said one Romney adviser.
Campaign aides said they believed Romney is in good position to fight a lengthy, sustained campaign to outlast Gingrich, who they do not believe can built a strong organizational get-out-the-vote effort in many states.
"We have the organization built to compete and do well in every state. We have been able to get on every ballot and have a 50-state organization. Newt, for instance couldn't even get on the ballot in his home state of Virginia," a Romney aide said.
(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Will Dunham)