Newt win throws GOP race wide open

Gingrich rides debate performances to sweeping South Carolina win
By Mark Z. Barabak
Los Angeles Times
CHARLESTON, S.C. – 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 begins.
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.
On the campaign trail and debate stage, he was persistently on the defensive, struggling with calls to release his tax returns and defend his record at Bain Capital, the investment company he co-founded, against charges of “vulture” capitalism.
For the first time in the race, Romney also came under sustained attack on the TV airwaves, which were bombarded with dozens of commercials blaring – for and against the different candidates – every hour from morning past midnight.
As a neighbor from Georgia, Gingrich enjoyed a little-noted advantage in the first Southern primary. But he also capitalized. as he has before, on his forceful debate performances.
On Thursday night, he turned what could have been a devastating setback – his ex-wife’s nationally broadcast assertion that Gingrich sought her sanction for an open marriage – into one of the most electrifying moments of his campaign. Asked about the allegation, Gingrich adamantly denied it after lambasting CNN moderator John King for even raising the subject.
Gingrich’s strong showing trumped the good news Santorum received out of Iowa and stymied the former senator’s efforts to rally South Carolina’s large population of evangelical and Christian conservatives behind his faith-and-family message.
Paul was never much of a factor. He showed up to debates but otherwise kept a light campaign schedule. His comparatively dovish defense and foreign policy proposals were never a good fit for this strongly pro-military state.
There were 25 delegates at stake Saturday, a reduction of 50 percent after the state was penalized for advancing its primary to stay ahead of Florida, which jumped the queue to vote Jan. 31. But South Carolina was less about winning delegates than gaining momentum, just like the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
The nature of the race now shifts as it heads to the megastate of Florida, for a more far-flung campaign that will be the norm from now on.
In contrast to the relative compactness of the three earliest-voting states, Florida sprawls across 10 major media markets and culturally ranges from the Latin-influenced cosmopolitan hub of Miami to the cultural conservatism of the Panhandle and so-called “redneck Riviera.”
The Sunshine State has been seen as Romney’s proverbial firewall, the place where his enormous advantages in money and organization are supposed to reassert his command of the race.
On Saturday, Gingrich was already looking ahead, calling into Florida for a telephone town hall meeting. “It’s going to be a great campaign,” Gingrich said. “We have to have people power and idea power to offset Romney’s money power, so we need your help.”
All four candidates are set to meet in the 18th debate of the campaign Monday night in Tampa.

(Staff writers Seema Mehta in Charleston, S.C., and John Hoeffel in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report)