COLUMBIA, S.C. — Mitt Romney on Sunday downplayed his collapse in South Carolina's primary over the weekend, saying winner Newt Gingrich had "a good week." But the results of the vote show the former Massachusetts governor still hasn't overcome his problems with conservative voters searching for any candidate but him.
In record turnout of more than 600,000 voters, South Carolina delivered first place to Mr. Gingrich with 40 percent of the vote. Mr. Romney took second with 28 percent, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania placed third with 17 percent and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was fourth with 13 percent.
In a striking acknowledgement, Mr. Romney told "Fox News Sunday" he met his polling expectations, but failed to win the undecideds, who swamped the voting booths in favor of Mr. Gingrich.
"You saw in the very [first] part of the week, I was at 29 percent in the polls," Mr. Romney told "Fox News Sunday" host Chris Wallace. "I got 28 [percent] when we were finished. The undecideds virtually all broke for Newt, and I understand that. He had a good week."
The race now shifts to Florida's Jan. 31 primary, where Mr. Romney will try to break his cycle of winning a sizable chunk of the vote but never being able to overwhelm opponents the way someone with his organization and money could be expected to do. And it keeps alive the storyline that conservative voters continue to search for an alternative to him.
Although polls as late as Wednesday showed him leading Mr. Gingrich, the former House speaker soared in the last few days to win by 12 points.
Of the voters who made up their minds on the Saturday of the primary or in the days leading up to it, 44 percent cast their lot with Mr. Gingrich, while less than a quarter went for Mr. Romney. And while Mr. Romney won among voters who made up their minds last year, three-fourths of the voters didn't decide until sometime in January — and they favored Mr. Gingrich.
For some of these voters, it's a choice between supporting the candidate they think can beat President Obama or the candidate to whom they feel a connection.
Columbia resident Jodie McDougall told The Washington Times that she was inside the voting booth before she decided, and even then, she switched her vote.
"It was so hard, I was literally in the booth before I knew who I was going to vote for, and I voted for one and switched it to the other," she said. "I went from Mitt to Rick. I hit it, and then I reviewed and it thought, 'No, my heart's with Rick Santorum, [but] I think Mitt can probably win quicker than Rick.' "
It was a similar story in Iowa, where Mr. Romney had maintained support around the high teens to low 20s through the fall as the other candidates ebbed and flowed.
But in the end, Mr. Santorum managed to barely edge him in a last-minute surge, winning more than a third of voters deciding in the final days, while less than a quarter went for Mr. Romney.
That means Mr. Santorum, Mr. Romney and Mr. Gingrich have each won a contest, though Mr. Romney still leads in likely total delegates earned, and in overall votes cast across all three states. He has 294,676 to Mr. Gingrich's 282,737. Using exit polls to subtract out the percentage of self-identified Democrats and independents, however, a Washington Times analysis shows the two men virtually tied among self-identified Republicans.
That matters going forward, where more contests are open only to party members. In the first three contests, they were open to a broader swath of voters.
Despite substantial funding, support from a major super-PAC, a well-oiled campaign and name recognition from running in 2008, Mr. Romney has had trouble exciting voters. The wealthy businessman struggled last week to defend his refusal to release his tax forms and deflect criticisms about his work as the CEO at Bain Capital.
At the same time, Mr. Gingrich aggressively fought back against questions about his personal character that rose to the forefront after his now ex-wife told ABC he had asked her for an "open marriage" while having an affair.
In the end, the race shook out in favor of Mr. Gingrich, who has argued that Mr. Romney is the "establishment" candidate while the former House speaker represents a threat to the Washington status quo.
"The establishment is right to be worried about a Gingrich nomination, because a Gingrich nomination means that we're going to change things," he said. "We're going to make the establishment very uncomfortable. We're going to demand real change in Washington, real audit of the Federal Reserve, real knowledge about where hundreds of billions of dollars have gone."
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