01/21/2012 11:36 pm ET Updated Jan 22, 2012

Mitt Romney Concedes South Carolina Primary, Takes To Tough Road Ahead

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Mitt Romney gave his first concession speech of the 2012 election cycle on Saturday night, but it didn't sound much like one. And it didn't sound much like Mitt Romney, either.

Romney gave a brief word of congratulations to Newt Gingrich, who took the South Carolina primary prize on Saturday, before going on the attack, previewing the race to come by bashing the former House speaker for his ethics violation in Congress, his lack of business and executive experience, and, worse, his similarities to President Barack Obama.

"We've seen a frontal assault on free enterprise. We expected this from President Obama, we didn't anticipate some Republicans would join him," Romney said, to boos from the audience.

"Let me be clear," he added later. "If Republican leaders want to join this president in demonizing success and disparaging conservative values, then they're not going to be fit to be our nominee."

Romney's post-primary event was as high energy as any campaign rally, with three packed bleachers and others crowded around a podium near the center of the room. The true believers in the crowd said the results meant little and Romney would get the nomination in the end.

They interrupted his speech with a chant, "We need Mitt," and the former Massachusetts governor paused to smile. "Thank you. My wife Ann agrees with you," he said.

Romney said he would still get the nomination, but that it would be a "long primary season." A week ago, he might have said differently, when he was the declared winner of two states and the expected winner of another. But now, he is only the winner of one state, after Iowa GOP officials handed the Iowa victory to Santorum. Gingrich took South Carolina, and Romney has to fight to regain his status as the candidate who seemed inevitable.

Romney took an increasingly offensive stance on Friday and Saturday, as Gingrich climbed -- then surpassed him -- in the polls, and the calls grew louder for Romney to release his tax returns. He doubled down on a demand for Gingrich to release a full report of his ethics violation in Congress and records of his time working for the government-sponsored enterprise Freddie Mac, but the counter fell flat.

Still, the focus on Gingrich -- instead of Obama -- shows a worried campaign, and previews a Florida fight that'll be fought on Gingrich's terms: hand to hand combat.

Romney brought up Gingrich's ethics records on Friday in Gilbert, S.C., and criticized him for his time at Freddie on Saturday in Greenville. "Don't you think we ought to see it?" he said of Gingrich's consulting record, according to a press pool report. "This is a big issue. We've got a Washington insider talking about Freddie Mac, let's see what his report was to Freddie Mac, what he said to them, what advice he gave them."

Before the results came in, Romney brought up questions about Gingrich, but on Saturday evening his tone was more aggressive. While most of Romney's statements during his concession speech referred to "candidates" and "Republicans," it was clear they were very much aimed at Gingrich.

"President Obama has no experience running a business and no experience running a state," Romney said. "Our party can't be led to victory by someone who also has never run a business, or a state."

"Our campaign will be about the businesses I helped start, not the bills I tried to pass," he added.

Some supporters said Romney needs to be more aggressive to win the nomination. Donna Lawson, a 57-year-old retired nanny, said she was surprised when she saw on televisions in the Romney campaign room that the race was called for Gingrich. But Lawson thinks Romney can come back from the loss, especially if he hammers Gingrich on his past infidelity and other issues.

"His morals are getting in the way and he needs to sling a little more mud," she said.

Supporters were quick to dismiss the primary results as a fluke in the path to Romney's nomination. "South Carolinians are kind of a contrary bunch. It's a quirky state," a 60-year-old supporter named Margaret Lombardi said.

"This is nothing," said Rick Canaan, a Lexington resident who is retired from the Air Force. "He's going to win. I have full confidence, on both accounts, in November too."

Romney is ready for those successes to start up again. The crowd was loud, but he joked that past primaries have been louder.

He said, "You should hear them when we win."