Newt Gingrich, with wife Callista at right, speaks at the Hilton Hotel in… (Jeff Siner, Charlotte Observer )
CHARLESTON, S.C. — Newt Gingrich surged to victory in the South Carolina presidential primary, batting back questions about his personal life and riding a pair of strong debate performances to overtake Mitt Romney and slow his seeming march to the GOP nomination.
Romney finished more than 10 percentage points behind the former House speaker Saturday, with Rick Santorum and Ron Paul a distant third and fourth, respectively.
Gingrich, flashing just an occasional smile, marked his victory with a sober address to supporters in Columbia, praising each of his opponents and returning to a favorite tack -- bashing the media and "the elites in Washington and New York [who] have no understanding, no care, no connection, no reliability" and fail to represent the American people.
"It's not that I am a good debater," he said, ignoring the boisterous chants of supporters and delivering his remarks in the tone of a college lecture. "It is that I articulate the deepest-felt values of the American people."
His only criticism was of President Obama -- "A president so weak he makes Jimmy Carter look strong" -- and the inspiration that Gingrich said the Democrat draws from the radical left.
"We are going to argue American exceptionalism, the American Declaration of Independence, the American Constitution, the American Federalist Papers," Gingrich said as the crowd chanted, "U.S.A!"
Only at the end of his nearly half-hour speech did Gingrich deliver something approaching the usual election night exhortation. "We need to build on this victory by going to Florida," he told backers, urging them to recruit others they know to volunteer and contribute. "We proved here in South Carolina that people power with the right ideas beats big money, and with your help we're going to prove it again in Florida."
Earlier, wearing a tight smile and speaking with a sharp edge to his voice, Romney addressed supporters at his campaign headquarters, offering cursory congratulations to Gingrich and then lacing into his opponent.
Without mentioning Gingrich by name, Romney contrasted his business background with the former congressman's long Washington resume and lumped him together with Obama, saying the two had waged class warfare and "attacked the free-enterprise system that has made America the economic envy of the world."
"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 former Massachusetts governor vowed to make his case across the country, noting that the balloting had just begun and implicitly underscoring the financial and organizational advantages he still wields.
The results -- which seemed improbable as recently as a week ago -- added yet another twist to a roller-coaster campaign, marking the first time ever that three different contestants have won the first three Republican contests.
More important, the outcome stripped Romney of the brief air of inevitability he enjoyed after initially being declared the winner in Iowa -- an outcome reversed last 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 begin.
South Carolina, a state infamous for its unruly politics, lived up to that 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 following 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. Gingrich 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 buoyed Romney in Iowa and New Hampshire, according to the exit polls conducted by a TV network consortium. More than 6 in 10 voters identified themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, a group that has never warmed to Romney, a Mormon.
Riding a wave of successive victories -- or so it seemed -- in the first two contests, the former governor had appeared set to wrap up the nomination with a win in South Carolina, where, politicians here like to point out, every winner of the Republican primary since 1980 has gone onto to become the nominee.