Riding a recent surge that defied incendiary "open marriage" allegations by an ex-wife, Newt Gingrich has won the South Carolina Republican primary over Mitt Romney, raising the spectre of a protracted battle for the GOP nomination.
Just minutes after the polls closed in the Palmetto State, major networks projected a Gingrich win, one buoyed by evangelical support as well as last-minute decision makers: Exit polls showed more than half of voters had made up their minds in the last few days, a majority of whom cast their vote for Gingrich.
Taking the stage Saturday night in Columbia to chants of "Newt can win," Gingrich said as nominee he would challenge President Obama to seven debates, quipping, "I already have conceded that he can use a teleprompter if he wants to." Gingrich then launched into a common theme of his campaign: fighting the purported threat to religious freedom in America, fueled in part, he said, by "dictatorial religious bigots" serving in the judiciary.
As he's done before, Gingrich singled out one judge in particular: U.S. district judge Fred Biery of San Antonio, who in a 2011 ruling blocked school prayer during a graduation ceremony at a Texas high school.
Over the past week, Gingrich had attacked Romney as a "Massachusetts moderate" and slammed the former governor's record in TV ads, questioning his changed position on abortion rights. A super PAC supporting Gingrich spent $3.4 million on advertising in the state, where unemployment is at nearly 10%, casting Romney as a reckless corporate villain.
Rick Santorum and Ron Paul are fighting for a third-place finish. In an interview with CNN's Dana Bash at his campaign headquarters, Santorum shrugged off what appears to be a poor finish, despite an endorsement earlier this week from a coalition of top evangelical leaders.
Santorum congratulated Gingrich, saying he "kicked butt" -- two days after the former Pennsylvania senator attacked his rival for emotional instability and a "grandiosity" while serving in Congress that often lacked substance.
"The great narrative" of the campaign, Santorum said, "is that there was an inevitability in this," referring to Romney as presumptive GOP nominee. "I took Iowa. Newt took South Carolina. It's game on again."
All four candidates are currently scheduled to participate in a Monday debate in Tampa, Fla. hosted by NBC News and the National Journal.
"We are hopeful that in the contests ahead that Speaker Gingrich will run the type of positive campaign he promised earlier in the primary process," GOProud cofounder Christopher Barron said in a statement following Gingrich's win. "It is clear that Speaker Gingrich's poll numbers improved dramatically once he ended his unnecessary and unproductive attacks on Governor Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital."