Newt Gingrich scored a sweeping victory in the South Carolina primary Saturday, riding two strong debate performances to upset former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Just a week ago, Romney led polls by double digits, but found his lead collapse under questions about his tax returns. Exit polls indicated Republican voters were most concerned about "electability" — and believed that former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is best to accomplish that.
"Thank you, South Carolina!" a jubilant Gingrich swiftly tweeted to his supporters. He appealed for a flood or donations for the next-up Jan. 31 primary in Florida. "Help me deliver the knockout punch in Florida. Join our Moneybomb and donate now," said his tweet.
Gingrich gained 40 percent of the vote to 28 percent for Romney. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had 17 percent, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, 13.
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Gingrich declared his improbable victory in South Carolina a “very humbling and very sobering” experience, while challenging President Barack Obama to a series of seven, three-hour debates if he becomes the GOP nominee.
“The biggest thing I take from the campaign in South Carolina is that it is very humbling and very sobering to have so many people who so deeply want their country to get back on the right track,” Gingrich said with his wife, Callista, by his side.
Gingrich, who often is criticized for being overly bombastic, was nothing if not humble in his victory speech. “If I do become you nominee — and I think with your help I will become your nominee — but with your help, together, if that happens and it’s all up to all of us to work to make it happen — If that happens, then I will challenge president Obama to seven three-hour debates,” he declared.
He insisted that he did not win over South Carolina voters with his superior debating skills, something that a number of analysts point to in explaining Gingrich’s surge.
“People completely misunderstand what’s going on. It’s not that I am a good debater; it is that I articulate the deepest-felt values of the American people,” Gingrich said.
He had high praise for his opponents in the race, and particularly Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who dropped out on Thursday and endorsed Gingrich. “His passion is implementing the 10th Amendment. We are going to work with him to return power to the states, to local governments, to get it out of Washington, D.C.,” Gingrich said.
He even had kind words for Romney, who finished second on the night, saying that “Romney, with whom I disagree on many issues, is nonetheless a good example of America. He is hard working. He has been very successful. He has organized large systems. He did a terrific job at the winter Olympics,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich repeated some of the themes from the two South Carolina debates that earned him standing ovations earlier in the week, even referring to President Barack Obama as the “most effective food stamp president in American history.”
As the crowd chanted “USA,” Gingrich responded with a pledge to run an American campaign.
“You sort of just now captured the heart of this campaign,” he told the crowd. “The fact is we want to run not a Republican campaign. We want to run an American campaign because we are optimists about the future because America has always been optimistic about the future.”
Romney was unbowed. He vowed to contest for every vote in every state and unleashed a double-barreled attack on President Barack Obama and Gingrich simultaneously.
Referring to criticism of his business experience, Romney said, "When my opponents attack success and free enterprise, they're not only attacking me, they're attacking every person who dreams of a better future. He's attacking you," he told supporters, the closest he came to mentioning the night's primary winner's name.
Already, Romney and a group that supports him were on the air in Florida with a significant television ad campaign, more than $7 million combined to date. Aides to the former Massachusetts governor had once dared hope that Florida would seal his nomination — if South Carolina didn't first — but that strategy appeared to vanish along with the once-formidable lead he held in pre-primary polls.
Exit polling showed Gingrich, the former House speaker, leading by a wide margin among the state's heavy population of conservatives, tea party supporters and born-again Christians.
For the first time all year, Romney trailed among voters who said they cared most about picking a candidate who could defeat President Barack Obama this fall. Gingrich was ahead of the field for those voters' support.
As the first Southern primary, South Carolina has been a proving ground for Republican presidential hopefuls in recent years.
Since Ronald Reagan in 1980, every Republican contender who won the primary has gone on to capture the party's nomination.
Romney swept into South Carolina 11 days ago as the favorite after being pronounced the winner of the lead-off Iowa caucuses, then cruising to victory in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.
But in the sometimes-surreal week that followed, he was stripped of his Iowa triumph — GOP officials there now say Santorum narrowly won — while former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman dropped out and endorsed Romney and Perry quit and backed Gingrich.
Romney responded awkwardly to questions about releasing his income tax returns, and about his investments in the Cayman Islands. Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, benefited from two well-received debate performances while grappling with allegations by a former wife that he had once asked her for an open marriage so he could keep his mistress.
By primary eve, Romney was speculating openly about a lengthy battle for the nomination rather than the quick knockout that had seemed within his grasp only days earlier.
There were 25 Republican National Convention delegates at stake in South Carolina, but political momentum was the real prize with the race to pick an opponent to Obama still in its early stages.
In all, more than $12 million was spent on television ads by the candidates and their allies in South Carolina, much of it on attacks designed to degrade the support of rivals.
Interviews with voters as they left polling places showed nearly half saying their top priority was finding a candidate who could defeat Obama in the fall, followed by wishes for experience, strong moral character and true conservatism.
In a state with 9.9 percent unemployment, concern about the economy was high, and almost one-third of those voting reported a household member had lost a job in the past three years.
The exit poll was conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research as voters left polls at 35 randomly selected sites. The survey involved interviews with 1,577 voters and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Santorum announced shortly after the polls closed that he would open his campaign in Florida on Sunday.
Paul has said he intends to skip the state and focus his efforts on caucus contests in Nevada on Feb. 4 and Missouri several days later.
Santorum pinned his South Carolina hopes on a heavy turnout in parts of the state with large concentrations of social conservatives, the voters who carried him to his surprisingly strong showing in Iowa.
Paul had a modest campaign presence here after finishing third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire. His call to withdraw U.S. troops from around the world was a tough sell in a state dotted with military installations and home to many veterans.
Romney's stumbles began even before his New Hampshire primary victory, when he told one audience that he had worried earlier in his career about the possibility of being laid off.
He gave a somewhat rambling, noncommittal response in a debate in Myrtle Beach last Monday when asked if he would release his tax returns before the primary. The following day, he told reporters that because most of his earnings come from investments, he paid about 15 percent of his income in taxes, roughly half the rate paid by millions of middle-class wage earners. A day later, aides confirmed that some of his millions are invested in the Cayman Islands, although they said he did not use the offshore accounts as a tax haven.
Asked again at a debate in North Charleston on Thursday about releasing his taxes, his answer was anything but succinct and the audience appeared to boo.
Gingrich benefited from a shift in strategy that recalled his approach when he briefly soared to the top of the polls in Iowa. At mid-week he began airing a television commercial that dropped all references to Romney and his other rivals, and contended that he was the only Republican who could defeat Obama.
It featured several seconds from the first debate in which the audience cheered as he accused Obama of having put more Americans on food stamps than any other president.
Nor did Gingrich flinch when ex-wife Marianne said in an interview on ABC that he had been unfaithful for years before their divorce in 1999, and asked him for an open marriage.
Asked about the accusation in the opening moments of the second debate of the week, he unleashed an attack on ABC and debate host CNN and accused the "liberal news media" of trying to help Obama by attacking Republicans. His ex-wife's account, he said, was untrue.
Associated Press writers Shannon McCaffrey, Kasie Hunt, and Beth Fouhy contributed to this report.
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