COLUMBIA, S.C. — Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stormed to an upset victory in the South Carolina primary Saturday night, dealing a sharp setback to former frontrunner Mitt Romney and abruptly scrambling the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
In victory, Gingrich praised his Republican rivals and attacked President Barack Obama and “elites in New York and Washington.”
Obama is “the most effective food stamp president in history,” he said. “I would like to be the best paycheck president in American history.” Those declarations and his attack on the “elite news media” reprised two of his more
memorable lines from a pair of debates that helped fuel his victory.
Exit polls showed he led among voters who said their top priority was picking a candidate who could beat Obama — a group that had preferred Romney in earlier contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Romney, the national front-runner until now, was unbowed. He vowed to contest for every vote “in every state,” an acknowledgement that the race would likely be a long one. He also unleashed a double-barreled attack on Obama and Gingrich.
Referring to Gingrich’s criticism of his business experience, Romney said, “When my opponents attack success and free enterprise, they’re not only attacking me, they’re attacking every person who dreams of a better future. He’s attacking you,” he told supporters, the closest he came to mentioning the primary winner’s name.
As the first Southern primary, South Carolina has been a proving ground for Republican presidential hopefuls in recent years. Since Ronald Reagan in 1980, every Republican contender who won the primary has gone on to capture the party’s nomination.
Nearly 600,000 voters turned out, according to an AP estimate. That eclipses the previous record turnout for the primary in 2000, when George W. Bush won.
Based on the vote total, Gingrich won at least 15 of the 25 Republican National Convention delegates at stake and none of the other contenders was yet assured of any.
But political momentum was the real prize with the race to pick an opponent to Obama still in its early stages.
Gingrich readily conceded that he trails in money, and even before appearing for his victory speech he tweeted supporters thanking them and appealing for a flood of donations for the Jan 31 primary: “Help me deliver the knockout punch in Florida. Join our Moneybomb and donate now,” said his tweet.