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