, South Carolina, Jan 22 – Republican White House hopeful Newt Gingrich defeated one-time frontrunner Mitt Romney in the key South Carolina primary in an upset that transforms the topsy-turvy race.
The former House speaker, who had surged ahead in the final days of campaigning here, pulled off a surprise victory in the battle to be the party’s presidential nominee in November, US media said, citing exit poll data.
The result destroys the aura of invincibility that had cloaked Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, until a few days ago, and had made him the man to beat in a race that now moves to Florida for its primary on January 31.
In a message on his Twitter account, Gingrich said: “Thank you South Carolina. Help me deliver the knockout punch in Florida. Join our Moneybomb and donate now.”
Shouts of “Newt, Newt” echoed in the former speaker’s campaign headquarters here when Fox television called the primary for Gingrich, with one supporter saying, “I feel like I want to kiss everybody.”
Three different winners have now emerged in the first three contests of the bitterly-divided 2012 Republican race to be the party’s standard-bearer to take on Democratic President Barack Obama in the November elections.
South Carolina marked Gingrich’s first triumph after Christian conservative former senator Rick Santorum squeaked out a victory in Iowa and Romney romped home in New Hampshire, dividing up the electoral spoils and bragging rights.
The fight was on between Santorum and libertarian congressman Ron Paul for the third place here, as they jostle for status before the Florida vote.
Gingrich’s win will rekindle doubts about whether Romney, a multi-millionaire investor and champion of the party’s establishment, can rally the conservative core, which views him with suspicion.
Romney came out swinging late Saturday, vowing he was moving on to Florida prepared for the long-haul as he congratulated “speaker Gingrich and my fellow Republicans on a hard-fought campaign here in South Carolina.”
“This is a hard fight because there is so much worth fighting for,” he told supporters shouting “We need Mitt” in the state capital Columbia.
“This election is a battle for the soul of America. It’s a choice between two very different destinies for America,” Romney added, attacking Obama as having no idea how to get the struggling economy back on its feet.
“If President Obama thinks he can compare his record of job losses, with my record of job creation that’s a battle we’re going to win.”
South Carolina is key in the path to the White House as no Republican since 1980 has captured the party’s nomination without first winning here.
Romney’s defeat in the southern state where he was once favored by nearly 20 points turns what he hoped would be a sprint to the nomination into a marathon, where his rivals must somehow overcome his more sophisticated, well-oiled operation.
Santorum praised Gingrich for his “great victory” adding “he kicked butt.”
“There’s a momentum for Newt and he capitalized on it,” he told CNN, reassuring supporters that he would not bow to pressure to quit to allow conservatives to coalesce around one candidate.
“We have conservative organizations, we just got together and started endorsing us this week. We think for the long-term, we’re going to be in much stronger shape.”
With all eyes now on the vote-rich battleground of Florida, Susan MacManus, professor of political science at the University of South Florida, told AFP: “I think it will be really fascinating if Newt Gingrich comes very close to Romney or beats him.
“That makes Florida the epicenter of this nominating process. Republicans are well aware, not just Florida Republicans, but elsewhere, that if a Republican candidate cannot win Florida they are probably not going to win the White House.”
Gingrich rose in South Carolina with a series of feisty debate performances, and drew a standing ovation Thursday with a blistering reply to a question about his marital woes, a query he denounced as “despicable.”
Romney meanwhile has sought to deflect attacks that he built his vast fortune while firing workers, saying he expected such jibes from Obama, not fellow Republicans — traditionally the party of business.