AP Photo/Matt Rourke
Republican presidential candidate and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich takes part in a TV interview during a campaign event at the Grapevine Restaurant in Spartanburg, S.C., on Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012, the unpredictable voting day of the South Carolina presidential primary.
Whatever it was, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pulled off an upset win in the South Carolina primary Saturday night, beating front-runner Mitt Romney and putting the Republican presidential nomination into a horse race.
"Thank you, South Carolina!" Gingrich swiftly tweeted to his supporters. He appealed for a flood or donations for the next-up Jan. 31 primary. "Help me deliver the knockout punch in Florida. Join our Moneybomb and donate now," said his tweet.
Already, Romney and a group that supports him were on the air in Florida with a significant television ad campaign, more than $7 million combined to date. Aides to the former Massachusetts governor had once dared hope that Florida would seal his nomination — if South Carolina didn't first — but that strategy appeared to vanish along with the once-formidable lead he held in pre-primary polls.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul trailed badly in the South Carolina voting.
Exit polling showed Gingrich, the former House speaker, leading by a wide margin among the state's heavy population of conservatives, tea party supporters and born-again Christians.
For the first time all year, Romney trailed among voters who said they cared most about picking a candidate who could defeat President Barack Obama this fall. Gingrich was ahead of the field for those voters' support.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, swept into South Carolina 11 days ago as the favorite after being pronounced the winner of the lead-off Iowa caucuses, then cruising to victory in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.
But in the sometimes-surreal week that followed, he was stripped of his Iowa triumph — GOP officials there now say Santorum narrowly won — while former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman dropped out and endorsed Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry quit and backed Gingrich.
Romney responded awkwardly to questions about releasing his income tax returns, and about his investments in the Cayman Islands. Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, benefited from two well-received debate performances while grappling with allegations by an ex-wife that he had once asked her for an open marriage so he could keep his mistress.
By primary eve, Romney was speculating openly about a lengthy battle for the nomination rather than the quick knockout that had seemed within his grasp only days earlier.
There were 25 Republican National Convention delegates at stake, but political momentum was the real prize with the race to pick an opponent to President Barack Obama still in its early stages.