CHARLESTON, S.C. (MCT) — 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.
NBC News 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 Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul trailing behind.
The results were a fitting addendum to a roller-coaster campaign, marking the first time ever that three different contestants have won the first three Republican contests.
More importantly, the outcome stripped Romney of the brief air of inevitability he enjoyed after seemingly winning Iowa — an outcome reversed this week in Santorum’s favor — and romping to victory in New Hampshire.
South Carolina’s results 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 its reputation, hosting one of the most raucous weeks of the tumultuous presidential campaign.
Romney arrived in seemingly commanding position; Gingrich limped in, once again left for dead following 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: Slightly more than half made up their minds in the last few days, and nearly 90 percent said a big factor was the debates, which Gingrich dominated.
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 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 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 and awarded to Santorum after a review of caucus ballots showed the former Pennsylvania senator winning by 34 votes. His one-two victories gone, Romney no longer seemed so inevitable.
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