Newt Gingrich has won the South Carolina Republican primary, Fox News projects, further scrambling an already volatile presidential race which has produced three different winners in three states.
Fox News projects that Mitt Romney will place second in the Palmetto State, where he was leading in the polls just one week ago. Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are battling for third place, and that contest remains too close to call, though Fox News exit polls show Santorum with a slight lead over the Texas congressman.
Gingrich’s victory marks a remarkable comeback for the former House speaker, propelled by his strong performance in two debates in South Carolina this week.
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 was leading among those who say it’s important that a candidate shares their religious beliefs. Romney, a Mormon, led among those who care less about a candidate’s religious affiliation.
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 complicate things. With Gingrich’s victory, there have been three distinct winners in the first three contests.
Primary day Saturday was marked by tough rhetoric on both sides, previewing the race ahead.
In the morning, Gingrich mocked Romney after the former Massachusetts governor came and went at a campaign stop where both candidates were expected to meet.
“Where’s Mitt?” Gingrich said mockingly, as he arrived at a Greenville diner just minutes after Romney’s bus rolled out.
In a coincidence of scheduling, both Romney and Gingrich had booked events at Tommy’s Ham House shortly before 11 a.m. The campaigns only realized the issue a day earlier, though insisted they would not change their schedules. However, Romney showed up 45 minutes early. When Gingrich arrived, he ribbed his rival.
“I thought he was going to stay and maybe we’d have a little debate here this morning,” Gingrich said.
Gingrich sounded increasingly confident about his chances in the South Carolina contest as he cast himself as the “genuine conservative” to go up against President Obama.
Not to be outdone, Romney’s campaign later put out a statement celebrating the “15th anniversary” of the House decision to reprimand Gingrich for ethics violations, during his days as speaker.
Romney suggested Saturday morning in Greenville that he’s girding for a drawn-out election, while sounding optimistic about his odds in the long run.
“We’re going to work tirelessly to make sure we win this thing, not just (in South Carolina). We’d like to win here, of course, but we have a long way to go,” he said.
On the final day, Gingrich and Romney sparred over each other’s call to release detailed personal records.
Gingrich on Saturday rejected calls by Romney for him to release extensive information about the ethics investigation while he was House speaker. Gingrich dismissed the demand as a ploy to “divert” from the fact Romney has not committed to releasing his tax returns before April.
Romney’s fortunes have taken a sharp turn over the past week. He initially headed into South Carolina with a win in Iowa and New Hampshire under his belt.
Then the Iowa GOP announced that Santorum, and not Romney, had actually won the Iowa caucuses – party officials declared Santorum the winner late Friday night after giving a qualified announcement earlier in the week. Rick Perry also dropped out on Thursday, endorsing Gingrich.