- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 21, 2012

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Riding a surge of sentiment against Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich soared to a runaway victory in South Carolina’s primary Saturday, solidifying himself as the chief conservative alternative to Mr. Romney and fundamentally rewriting the dynamics of the race as it heads deeper into the calendar.

In what his campaign called a “political tsunami,” Mr. Gingrich had a stunning 40 percent of the vote, or nearly 50 percent more than Mr. Romney, with almost all precincts reporting. Turnout was heavy, with nearly 600,000 people voting — topping 2000’s record turnout of 573,101.

“We proved here in South Carolina, people power, with the right ideas, beats money,” Mr. Gingrich said at his victory party.

The victory is an improbable turnaround for the former House speaker, whose campaign twice seemed to be near-dead, but who showed extraordinary resilience here. He faced down renewed accusations of infidelity from his second ex-wife, and used two debate performances to showcase himself as a fighter able to take on his own party and President Obama.

“I hate the way the country’s gone, and I think Gingrich has got just the tenacity and probably the charisma to carry out what really needs to be done,” said David Lowry, who voted for Mr. Gingrich at Meadowfield Elementary School in Columbia.

Mr. Romney was declared the second-place finisher, and his campaign is now reeling after earlier this week learning his victory in Iowa’s caucuses has been rescinded and given instead to former Sen. Rick Santorum.

“This race is getting to be even more interesting,” Mr. Romney said, congratulating Mr. Gingrich for his victory but launching a harsh critique on him at the same time. He said Mr. Gingrich’s attack on his business record as the head of Bain Capital means he is “not going to be fit to be our nominee.”

“Those who pick up the weapons of the left today will find them turned against us tomorrow,” he said. “That’s the choice our party gives America, or else we don’t offer them any choice at all.”

Mr. Santorum was projected to finish third, ahead of Rep. Ron Paul.

“Three states, three winners. What a great country,” Mr. Santorum said.

With nearly all votes in, Mr. Gingrich had 40 percent, Mr. Romney had 28 percent, Mr. Santorum had 17 percent, and Mr. Paul had 13 percent. Herman Cain, who canceled his campaign in December, drew 1 percent support.

Mr. Gingrich won all but three counties, meaning he probably will take the lion’s share of delegates, which are awarded based on overall vote total and regional strength.

Just as telling as Mr. Gingrich’s victory was what the exit polling showed about his support. More than 61 percent of his voters made up their minds in the last few days, after the two debates, in which his attacks on the media drew huge ovations.

“it’s not that I am a great debater,” Mr. Gingrich said Saturday. “It’s that I articulate the deepest-held values of the American people.”

Mr. Gingrich was powered to victory by voters who saw him as a fighter, capable of competing against both Mr. Romney in the primary and Mr. Obama in a general election campaign.

His supporters also rejected this past week’s marital infidelity allegations by Mr. Gingrich’s second ex-wife, who said in an interview with ABC that her former husband is unfit to be president.

Shirley Saturday, a Gingrich voter, dismissed the accusations.

“That was a long time ago,” said Ms. Saturday, voting at Kelly Mill Middle School in Blythewood, north of Columbia. “Nobody I can think of hasn’t done something like that. They bring it up when they’re found out.”

The fight now shifts to Florida, where Mr. Romney holds a lead in the polls and already has been running ads and collecting endorsements of major figures in the state.

South Carolina has voted for the eventual Republican nominee in every race back to 1980. That record will be tested this year with Mr. Gingrich’s first-place performance.

The 2012 GOP race has been dominated by questions over Mr. Romney and conservative voters’ search for an alternative to him.

Exit polling conducted by the Associated Press and television news networks showed a strong anti-Romney feeling remains. Just 39 percent of those surveyed said they would “enthusiastically” support Mr. Romney if he wins the GOP’s nomination. Another 47 percent said they’d support him “with reservations,” while 12 percent said they wouldn’t support him at all.

Mr. Romney won among self-identified moderate and liberal voters, and his supporters praised his nuanced stances as they walked out of the voting booth.

“One of the things I find interesting about Romney — and the guy’s taken a beating — he changes his mind,” said Steve Sacko, who said he’s not a straight party ticket voter and said he’s not necessarily going to vote for the GOP nominee in November no matter what.

With three contests now in the books, Mr. Santorum has a first place in Iowa, a fifth place in New Hampshire and a third place in South Carolina. Mr. Gingrich has two fourth-place finishes, and now a victory here. Mr. Romney has a second-place finish, a win in New Hampshire and now another second-place finish. And Mr. Paul has a third-place showing in Iowa, second in New Hampshire and now fourth in South Carolina.

Mr. Santorum and Mr. Paul have both said they are prepared to keep fighting past Saturday’s battle. Mr. Santorum is going to make a major push in Florida, while Mr. Paul is already working hard in Nevada, whose caucuses are slated for Feb. 4.

Mr. Paul said very few delegates have actually been awarded yet — less than 2 percent of those necessary to win the nomination.

“This is the beginning of a long, hard slog,” he said.

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