That vast swing in support gave Gingrich a win that will profoundly re-shape a nominating contest that, a week ago, seemed to be effectively over.
“With your help, we are now moving on to Florida and beyond,” Gingrich told supporters on Saturday night. “I think with your help, I will become your nominee.”
Gingrich cast his success as a sign that average Americans are angry at “elites” in New York and Washington, and in the news media particularly. He said he would use his debating skills to challenge President Obama, proposing a series of seven three-hour debates before the general election.
“It’s not that I am a good debater,” Gingrich said. “It is that I articulate the deepest-felt values of the American people.”
The night seemed to validate Gingrich’s new model for a presidential campaign — which held that his own strong debate performances could overcome Romney’s edge in advertising and money.
Here, it finally worked. About two-thirds of South Carolina voters said that the debates — in which Gingrich blistered his opponents and the moderators — were an important factor in their decisions.
Early estimates were that turnout was about 595,000. That would top the previous record turnout, when 573,101 voted in 2000.
For Romney, the loss meant that his claim to be the GOP’s inevitable nominee suddenly looked dubious. Romney had arrived in South Carolina as the apparent winner of the first two GOP contests. He faced an electorate that seemed open to his message that only a Washington outsider could restore free markets and sensible spending.
Then, this week, Romney lost Iowa in a recount. And then, in South Carolina, he was beaten by a man who had been the ultimate Washington insider.
“We’re now three contests into a long primary season. This is a hard fight because there’s so much worth fighting for. We’ve still got a long way to go, and a lot of work to do,” Romney told supporters. He then attacked Gingrich, without naming him, for sharing some of the same attributes as President Obama. “Our party can’t be led to victory by somebody who has also never run a business and never run a state,” Romney said.
Far behind in third place was former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.), who took Iowa from Romney by 34 votes. He said afterward that Gingrich “kicked butt.”
“The great narrative of this is that three days ago there was an inevitability in this race. ... I took Iowa, Newt took South Carolina, and it’s game on again,” Santorum said. “I can’t be more excited for the opportunity now to see this campaign go on, and we’re going to have it go on for a long time.”