Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich swept to a powerful win over Mitt Romney in the South Carolina Republican primary Saturday, throwing the GOP race wide open.
Gingrich rode a surge powered by his impressive performance in debates that catapulted him into the lead among voters in the strongly conservative state.
With 99% of the votes counted, Gingrich led by a 40%-to-28% margin. Gingrich is likely to win almost all of the 25 delegates at stake in South Carolina, and will likely lead in the national count after the votes are counted.
“We believe that if we unleash the American people we can rebuild the America we love,” Gingrich said. “With your help we are now moving on to Florida and beyond.”
Romney conceded defeat, but predicted he would win as the election moves across the country.
“This is a hard fight because there’s so much worth fighting for,” Romney told cheering supporters. “This election is for the soul of America.”
He sought to quickly put South Carolina behind him and focus on President Obama, who is extremely unpopular among GOP voters.
“Our president has attacked the free enterprise system that makes us the envy of the world,” Romney said.
Rick Santorum, who finished third with 17% of the South Carolina vote, congratulated Gingrich on his big win. But he vowed to stay in the race for Florida and beyond.
He suggested that conservatives may eventually tire of Gingrich’s fireworks and settle on Santorum as the steady choice.
The GOP election now moves on to Florida, where the primary will be held on January 31. Many analysts believe that Romney has an advantage in Florida because he has been running TV ads there for weeks.
Under Florida’s early voting system more than a quarter of all Republican voters may have already cast their ballots, analysts said.
The South Carolina results confirmed the results of opinion polls that suggested Gingrich surged ahead of Romney in the final days and hours before the vote. Exit polls revealed more than half the voters in South Carolina decided who to vote for in the last few days.
The nearly 15-point win was a massive victory for Gingrich, who stumbled through the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. It would also strip Romney of the cloak of invincibility he once wore as the presumptive nominee.
Besides his problems in South Carolina, Romney also turned out to have narrowly lost Iowa to Santorum, a final count showed, reversing his Election Night 8-vote lead there.
Gingrich is riding a last-minute surge fueled by his combative performances in two debates, especially the final one Wednesday night in which he ripped into CNN host John King for kicking off the debate with a question about his ex-wife’s tawdry claim that he wanted an “open marriage.”
In the same debate, Romney fumbled a question about his tax returns, saying “maybe” when asked if he would release them.