Published January 21, 2012
Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich takes part in a TV interview during a campaign event at the Grapevine Restaurant in Spartanburg, S.C., on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, the unpredictable voting day of the South Carolina presidential primary. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Newt Gingrich resurrected his campaign Saturday with a stunning victory in the South Carolina Republican presidential primary, leveraging strong debate performances and a handful of wrong turns for Mitt Romney to surge past the former frontrunner and reset the race which is now headed for Florida.
After claiming his first primary win, the former House speaker rallied supporters on the road to the next contest on Jan. 31. Gingrich, looking to convey the image of a general election candidate, focused his victory speech almost entirely on President Obama, unloading some of his toughest criticism to date on the White House incumbent.
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“He makes Jimmy Carter look strong,” Gingrich quipped at the close of his speech.
Gingrich faces organizational challenges going forward, but he said Saturday: “We don’t have the kind of money at least one of the candidates has, but we do have ideas and we do have people.”
Gingrich locked up a decisive victory in the state. With 100 percent of precincts reporting, Gingrich pulled in 41 percent of the vote, to Romney’s 27 percent.
Rick Santorum finished in third with 17 percent, followed by Ron Paul with 13 percent.
The leader board virtually ensures a drawn-out Republican race, a turnaround from just a week ago when Romney seemed poised to clinch the nomination in short order.
Romney, at his post-election rally in South Carolina, acknowledged that he sees a “long primary season” ahead and vowed to put up a stiff fight.
“I’ll keep fighting for every single vote. I will compete in every single state,” Romney said.
Gingrich surged to win South Carolina after what was arguably the most eventful week of the primary season. Rick Perry dropped out of the race Thursday, throwing his support behind Gingrich. The Iowa Republican Party dropped the surprise announcement that Santorum, and not Romney, had actually won the Iowa caucuses. And Romney found himself repeatedly struggling to answer questions — pushed by the Gingrich campaign and echoed in the media — about why he’s not releasing his tax returns before April. Meanwhile, Gingrich was able to deflect questions about allegations from his second wife that he once sought an “open marriage.”
His scorching answer at Thursday’s debate to a question on the subject may have even helped improve his standing ahead of the South Carolina vote.
In the delegate battle, Fox News projects Gingrich will win at least 19 of South Carolina’s 25 delegates. That puts him in second place behind Romney in the overall race for the nearly 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
With a victory under his belt, Gingrich held back Saturday night on criticism of his opponents. Rather, he unleashed a tirade of criticism on Obama, describing him again as the “most effective food-stamp president in American history” and excoriating him for his recent decision to deny a permit for the Canada-to-Texas Keystone pipeline.
Warning that the decision would drive the Canadians to strike an oil deal with China, he said: “An American president who can create a Chinese-Canadian partnership is truly a danger to this country.”
Romney, who for much of the race tried to focus his criticism on Obama, signaled Saturday he will step up his attacks against Gingrich in the upcoming contests.
The former Massachusetts governor, without calling out Gingrich by name, blasted him over his government-heavy resume and his past attacks on Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital.
“President Obama has no experience running a business and no experience running a state. Our party can’t be led to victory by someone who also has never run a business and never run a state,” Romney said. Likewise, Romney said the GOP can’t defeat Obama with a candidate who joined in on the “assault on free enterprise.”
“They’re attacking every person who dreams of a better future. He’s attacking you. I will support you,” Romney said, adding that anyone who demonizes success is not “fit” to be nominee.
Gingrich, though, recently has tempered his criticism of Romney’s time at the investment firm — opting instead to pressure Romney to release his tax returns.
Romney aides told Fox News there is no plan “at this time” to accelerate the release, but there is clearly a debate over the topic within the campaign.
One Romney adviser told Fox News that the campaign is “happy” with the state of the race.
“You never get to the end zone without being tired and taking hits,” said adviser Stuart Stevens.
Romney’s aides had been downplaying expectations by late Saturday, acknowledging the momentum that had been going Gingrich’s way in recent days.
Exit polling confirmed his advantage among several groups of voters. Those who made up their minds late broke for Gingrich, while those who had decided early mostly backed Romney. Late deciders outnumbered early deciders 53-46 percent. Gingrich also had the advantage among voters who viewed the debates as important. And Gingrich led among those who say it’s important that a candidate shares their religious beliefs.
South Carolina has a reputation as a tie-breaker in the Republican primaries, often setting the winner on a relatively smooth course to the nomination. But Saturday’s contest only complicates things. With Gingrich’s victory, there have been three distinct winners in the first three contests.
The race heads next to Florida. There, Romney is planning to aggressively go after Gingrich’s ethics record in the House during his days as speaker and the consulting work his firm did for Freddie Mac.
In a fresh fundraising pitch, Gingrich continued to press the case that he is the “Reagan conservative” the party needs to go up against Obama.
The other two candidates said they’re staying in the race.
Santorum, speaking Saturday night in Charleston, described the contest as “wide open” and said he’s charging into Florida next.
“Three states, three winners,” Santorum said. He continued to make a working-class appeal to voters, saying he’s going to bring a “little different message” than the other candidates.
“I plan to be a little different,” Santorum said. “I’m going to go out and talk about how we’re going to have a Republican Party, a conservative movement that makes sure that everyone in America has the opportunity to rise.”
Paul, despite placing fourth, vowed to press on Saturday night. He noted that the returns suggest his campaign will have attracted four or five times more votes than it did in the 2008 race.
“There’s every reason to be encouraged,” Paul told an enthusiastic crowd. “This campaign has a long way to go.”
Herman Cain, who dropped out of the race last year, still pulled in 1 percent of the vote Saturday — though comedian Stephen Colbert had been urging voters to cast their ballots for Cain, as a stand-in for his own mock candidacy.