After failing to crack the top three in the Iowa caucuses or the New Hampshire primary, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) appears to have reaped the rewards of his anti-Bain Capital documentary and a massive social conservative backlash against former governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) and won the primary in South Carolina. Exit polls show that Gingrich had a wide margin over Romney among self-identified tea party conservatives and born-again Christians, many of whom don't consider Mormons like Romney to be Christian.
For live county-by-county results, click here to go to the PBS NewsHour results site.
Romney is projected to come in second place, potentially by around 10 points. It's the second disappointment for Romney this week, after Iowa Republicans certified former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) the actual winner of the Iowa caucuses, despite having named Romney the winner at the time. Though Romney had been polling well in South Carolina after New Hampshire, a combination of the Gingrich-supportive super PAC's anti-Romney documentary (which is available here) and the narrowing of the field appears to have worked in Gingrich's favor in the end.
Despite the long-standing national narrative that Romney is more likely to be able to beat President Obama in a general election, South Carolina voters -- who told pollsters that the economy was their biggest issue -- rejected that narrative and suggested that, when seeking an electable candidate, Gingrich was their man.
Though the next major primary is Florida on January 31, political observers noted that, with absentee ballots already in, Gingrich is unlikely to be able to carry off a win in that key state to cement his new position in the dwindling field. Super Tuesday, then, may well help determine the winner in a race that political analysts once thought was over.
Romney made the first speech of the night to a chanting, cheering crowd, congratulating Gingrich and his other Republican rivals and leading off with attacks on Obama. He then turned quickly to Gringrich, suggesting that the winner of South Carolina was unqualified because he's "someone who has never run a business or run a state" or won who "attacks success and free enterprise" -- in other words, Newt Gingrich. He kept up his attack on Gingrich and then anti-Bain documentary: "The Republican party doesn't demonize prosperity, we celebrate success in our party." He added, "Those who pick up the weapons of the left today will find them turned against us tomorrow."
Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), who placed fourth -- his worst finish so far -- spoke next, telling his supporters that this "is the beginning of a long, hard slog," but that more people were hearing "the message of liberty." "I've been in the business of promoting this cause in the electoral system for a long time," he said, and "we will be going to the caucus states and promoting the idea of getting more delegates" to the Republican National Convention in August to promote his message there. His crowd really warmed up when he began in inveigh against nation-building, government spending and fiscal deficits, however, calling his $1 trillion, 1-year spending cut a "modest effort" toward improving the country's finances. He proceeded to explain that "reining in the Federal Reserve system" was one important tool in controlling government spending, prompting supporters to break into calls to "End the Fed!" He called our monetary system "illegal" and, to cheers, explained that "The Constitution still says that only gold and silver are legal tender." Paul also called for limits to Social Security, control of government spending, an end to the PATRIOT Act and the provisions in the NDAA that allow the President to indefinitely detain Americans accused of terrorism. He also congratulated his supporters for stalling SOPA/PIPA in Washington, noting that it shows that people can actually affect their political process. "Freedom brings people together, he said, "because it allows people to live the lives they choose," adding, "you should have the right to spend your money as you choose." He called his campaign "this battle for peace and prosperity," and urged his supporters to continue to promote their cause with him.
Third-place finisher Santorum took the stage at The Citadel next to cheers of "We picked Rick!" and congratulated Gingrich on his victory. He declared us at "war with radical jihadists" after referencing the crash of United Air Flight 93 in Shankville, Pennsylvania on September 11, calling the actions of the passengers "the first blow for freedom" and stating that he chose to announce his campaign in Somerset, Pennsylvania because of its proximity to Shanksville. (In Iowa, Santorum had said he chose Somerset because his grandfather immigrated there to escape fascism in Italy and Santorum saw Obama's presidency the way his father viewed Mussolini's rule.) Though polls showed Gingrich was the favorite among economy voters, Santorum flacked his manufacturing plan, which involves the elimination of taxes on all U.S. manufacturers during his speech in addition to his normal pablum about the hyper-importance of family to every aspect of society (including the economy).
Gingrich took the stage last in Columbia, South Carolina, after the DJ got the audience excited with a few family-friendly nineties james like Technotronic's "Pump Up The Jam," Prince's "1999" and C+C's Music Factory's "Everybody Dance Now," though Gingrich himself entered to the strains of Toby Keith's "American Ride" -- almost 10 minutes after he was initially announced,forcing the DJ to cycle through Brooks and Dunn's "Only In America," Journey's "Don't Stop Believing," Bachmann Turner Overdrive's "You Ain't See Nothing Yet" and Blur's "Song 2." When he did eventually arrive, Gingrich first thanked his debate prep team.
Gingrich, however, didn't credit his debate performance for his victory: "It's not that I'm good debater, it's just that I articulate the deeply-held values of the American political system," he said. He proceeded to heap praise on Santorum for his positions on Iran and manufacturing policy, and then on Paul for his position on "fiat money and the Federal Reserve," which Gingrich promised to support strongly. He praised Romney's work ethic, but didn't articulate any policy issues on which they might agree. Gingrich then said, "We want to run not a Republican campaign but an American campaign, because we are optimists about the future and Americans are optimistic about the future."
Only then did he turn to the current administration, telling the crowd that he decided to run because "If Barack Obama can get reelected after this disaster, just think how radical he could be in a second term." He added later that his campaign was about "American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky," a reference to the once-favorite punching bag of Glenn Beck.
Despite winning the primary on the backs of voters who identified the economy as their major concern, Gingrich only turned to the economy during the last part of his speech, after attacking Romney, Obama and a Texas judge who issued what Gingrich believes was a harsh ruling against school prayer. He talked about the need for a balanced budget, energy independence (including offshore drilling) and the need to never "bow to a Saudi king," without mentioning how often former president George W. Bush was photographed holding hands with the aforementioned king. Gingrich then slammed the administration's decent decision to kill the Keystone XL pipeline, blaming his "weakness" for "forcing" Canada and Saudi Arabia to engage with Chinese interests in oilfield exploration. He then called upon his supporters to call their friends in Florida to help get out the vote, and exited to the Brooks and Dunn song his DJ played while waiting for him to appear after he was initially expected to take the stage.
[This post was updated after its initial publication.]