Newt Gingrich smiles during a TV interview just before speaking to potential… (Paul J. Richards / AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Charleston, S.C. — Newt Gingrich surged to victory Saturday in the South Carolina primary, riding a pair of strong debate performances to overtake Mitt Romney and stop his seemingly relentless march to the GOP nomination.
Television networks called the race for the former House speaker almost immediately after the polls closed, a repeat of what happened 11 days ago in New Hampshire, but with a much different result.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Romney appeared headed for second place, with former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas trailing well behind.
With a tight smile, Romney addressed supporters in Columbia about an hour after the polls closed and immediately displayed a more pugnacious style.
Without mentioning his rival by name, Romney contrasted his business background with his chief opponent’s long Washington resume and sought to turn back Gingrich's attacks on Romney's business success.
He said Republicans cannot put up someone against President Obama who “has never run a business and never run a state” or choose a nominee who echoes the Democrats’ “class warfare.”
“The Republican Party doesn't demonize success,” Romney said. “We celebrate success in our party.... Those who pick up the weapons of the left today will find them turned against them tomorrow.”
The results were a fitting addition to a roller-coaster campaign, marking the first time that three different contestants have won the first three Republican contests.
More important, the outcome stripped Romney of the brief air of inevitablity he enjoyed after seemingly winning Iowa -- an outcome reversed this week in Santorum's favor -- and romping to victory in New Hampshire.
It promised, at the very least, a costly and heated fight ahead of the next primary, Jan. 31 in Florida, and possibly beyond -- to Nevada on Feb. 4 and into March when a rush of contests begins.
South Carolina, a state notorious for its unruly politics, lived up to its reputation, hosting one of the most raucous weeks of the tumultuous presidential campaign. Romney arrived in a seemingly commanding position; Gingrich limped in, once again left for dead after his poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But after a pair of contentious debates and the withdrawal of two candidates -- Texas Gov Rick Perry and former Utah Gov.Jon Huntsman, Jr.-- it was Gingrich who was surging and Romney who was suddenly peering over his shoulder.
Interviews with voters leaving the polls Saturday showed why: Just over half made up their minds in the last few days, and nearly 90% said a big factor was the debates, which Gingrich dominated. He won more than 4 in 10 of those who decided on primary day, compared with fewer than a third who backed Romney.
It was also a far more conservative turnout than the one that bouyed Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to the exit polls conducted by a network consortium. More than 6 in 10 voters identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, a group that has never warmed to Romney.
Riding a wave of successive victories -- or so it seemed -- in Iowa and New Hampshire, the former governor had appeared set to wrap up the nomination with a win in the Palmetto State, which, politicians here like to point out, has backed every Republican nominee since 1980.
But Iowa was taken away from Romney after a review of caucus ballots showed that his eight-vote victory actually belonged to Santorum, by 34 votes. His one-two victories gone, Romney no longer seemed so inevitable.
On the campaign trail and debate stage, he was persistently on the defensive, struggling with calls to release his tax returns and defend his record at Bain Capital, the investment firm he co-founded, against charges of “vulture” capitalism.
For the first time in the race, Romney also came under sustained attack on the TV airwaves, which were saturated in a bombardment that saw dozens of commercials blaring -- for and against the different candidates -- every hour from morning past midnight.
As a neighbor from Georgia, Gingrich enjoyed a little-noted advantage in the first Southern primary. But he also capitalized, as he has before, on his forceful debate performances.
On Thursday night, he turned what could have been a devastating setback -- an ex-wife's nationally broadcast assertion that Gingrich sought her sanction for an “open marriage” -- into one of the most electrifying moments of his campaign. Asked about the allegation, Gingrich adamantly denied it after lambasting the moderator for even raising the subject.
Gingrich’s strong showing trumped the good news Santorum received out of Iowa and stymied the former senator's efforts efforts to rally South Carolina's large population of evangelical and Christian conservatives behind his faith-and-family message.