WASHINGTON – Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich won big in the South Carolina primary Saturday, shaking up the race for the GOP nomination and stealing the momentum from competitor Mitt Romney.

Gingrich, a former speaker of the US House of Representatives, took 40 percent of the vote, significantly more than former Massachusetts governor Romney’s 28%. Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, came in third with 17%, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul finished fourth with 13%.

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Romney, already wounded from last week’s ruling that overturned his win in the Iowa caucus in favor of Santorum, is now hoping his superior funding and organization in Florida, the first large state of the contest, will put him back in front during the vote there on January 31.

Gingrich took a swipe at Romney’s resources when speaking to supporters, telling them, “We don’t have the kind of money that at least one of the candidates has. But we do have ideas and we do have people.”

Romney, for his part, said he welcomed the challenge.

“I don’t shrink from competition, I embrace it,” Romney told campaign supporters. “I believe competition makes us all better. I know it’s making our campaign stronger.”

Romney has long been perceived as the frontrunner but was unable to seal the deal with important Republican constituencies, including Evangelical Christians. The split vote in these groups has long aided him over several of his GOP rivals, but the results in South Carolina indicate that Gingrich has become his top challenger.

Gingrich won those groups in a landslide Saturday, taking 44% of the Evangelical vote to Romney’s 22%; 45% of Tea Party supporters to Romney’s 25%; and 48% of very conservative voters, opposed to 19% for Romney.

Some 65% of Saturday’s voters identified themselves as evangelicals, the largest proportion in any contest to date. The South Carolina primary was the first held in the south, following the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. It is a state with a pronounced conservative make-up.

“South Carolina is a very socially conservative state. Republicans in South Carolina care very deeply about issues such as abortion and gay marriage. A large percentage of voters in South Carolina are also Evangelical,” said political reporter Gina Smith from the Columbia, South Carolina, newspaper The State, speaking to foreign reporters about the race Friday. “So they want to hear candidates talk about their Christian faith. They want to hear – they want a candidate who has similar religious beliefs.”

Though Gingrich had to fend off stories referencing his three marriages, his admitted infidelity and other attacks on his private life in the run-up to the vote Saturday, family values voters didn’t seem to hold his marital history against him.

Smith attributed that in part to the fact that Gingrich’s past has long been in the public sphere, so little of the coverage was new to voters. Romney has also faced some questions about his Mormon faith, though Smith said that was less of an issue than in the past.

She also attributed Gingrich’s success in large part to two debates held in the week leading up to the vote.

“South Carolinians feel that Newt Gingrich just stole the show, that he won it outright,” she said, noting that many voters weren’t following the campaign until very recently.

“He is serving as a mouthpiece to South Carolinians’ anger, I would say. South Carolinians, the electorate, [are] angry right now. They’re mad at the federal government. They’re mad at Barack Obama. They’re upset about the unemployment rate,” she continued.

“When they look on that stage and hear Newt Gingrich wailing on all of those things and doing it with such passion and such vigor, he is their mouthpiece. They see him as a kindred spirit.”

While there are also large numbers of Christian conservatives in Florida, they are not the only key constituency. Given the state’s large size, the candidates’ advertising and organization will play a crucial role, and Romney’s superior financial power has already been on display there.

But Gingrich could well capitalize on the size of his win and the sense that he has emerged as Romney’s top competition.

Smith pointed out that South Carolina has backed the eventual Republican nominee in every contest going back to Ronald Reagan’s win in 1980.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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