WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney's back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire will force his weak-but-still-standing GOP rivals to make a crucial decision: Keep eviscerating the man that many see as the inevitable nominee, or temper their criticisms and dampen whatever hopes they have of overtaking him.
"President Obama wants to put free enterprise on trial. In the last few days, we have seen some desperate Republicans join forces with him," Romney said in his victory speech Tuesday night, chastising his critics while acting as though he is already the nominee. "This is such a mistake for our party and for our nation."
The former Massachusetts governor's easy win in the New Hampshire primary comes just as two of his opponents have opened the most scathing line of attack yet in the Republican contest. Seizing on Romney's record at the venture capital firm Bain Capital, they are painting him as a heartless profit-seeker who shuttered dozens of workplaces in the 1980s and '90s, laying off thousands of workers.
The attacks have delighted President Barack Obama's backers as they brace for an election focused on jobs. They planned all along to bash Romney with the Bain legacy and are happy to see Republicans get it started.
But the events have alarmed a cross section of establishment Republicans and conservative leaders who feel Romney can beat Obama next fall if he's not badly bloodied in a nominating process he has led from the start.
With New Hampshire over, the campaigning now moves to South Carolina. It has a history of brutal, even nasty campaigning in GOP primaries. It also has a much higher unemployment rate than Iowa and New Hampshire. Both factors might make the state fertile ground for rivals to depict him as a millionaire politician who vacuumed money out of companies and tossed them aside.
"We are quickly approaching the moment when GOP leaders will announce or reaffirm their support for the front-runner and call for a civil tone in the debate so the focus can be directed toward the current officeholder," said Republican consultant Danny Diaz.
A group backing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich plans to air TV ads showing distraught people who say they lost their jobs to Bain's restructuring practices during Romney's tenure years ago. Texas Gov. Rick Perry on Tuesday likened Bain to vultures that ruin people's lives.
And former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who finished third in New Hampshire, has taken a similar line of attack. He berated Romney for telling a breakfast group Monday: "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me."
Romney was talking about underperforming insurance companies. But his ill-timed remark played into the Bain narrative of a tycoon who doesn't mind killing jobs in the name of efficiency and profits.
The exchanges have triggered an intraparty debate about free enterprise. That debate should not be allowed to scorch the party's frontrunner, Romney's allies say.
"It's a sad day in South Carolina and across this country if Republicans are talking against the free market," said South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. "The free market is being able to hire and fire and do what you need to in terms of being a business or a consumer."
GOP consultant Terry Holt, said, "the last 48 hours have been about skinning Romney. But he comes out of New Hampshire stronger and looking more like the nominee, not less."
New Hampshire voters, Holt said, "might have helped inoculate Romney from future Bain Capital attacks."
Gingrich may be the central player in the drama. Friends say he has every right to fume over hard-hitting attack ads that seriously damaged him in Iowa. A group backing Romney aired the ads, and Romney refused Gingrich's pleas to denounce them.
Campaigning in New Hampshire, Gingrich seemed eager to fire back. He said Bain "apparently looted the companies, left people totally unemployed and walked off with millions of dollars."
Among those condemning Gingrich's attacks were conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh, a frequent Romney critic.
"Newt is parroting what The New York Times is writing about Romney," Limbaugh said on a recent broadcast. "This is payback time. It drove him nuts, that series of ads that Romney's super PAC ran in Iowa, and this is the result of it."
Some veteran Republicans are urging calm. Primaries always turn rough, they say, noting that Hillary Rodham Clinton showed little mercy on Obama in 2008.
Others, however, said the pro-Gingrich group is going too far with TV attack ads based on a movie that rips Romney's record at Bain.
"We've seen it time and again," said Phyllis Woods, New Hampshire's Republican National committeewoman. "The Democrats tape it, preserve it and regurgitate it in their own campaigns."
Bio: Charles Babington covers politics for The Associated Press.