COLUMBIA, S.C.-In a state famous for successfully predicting every Republican presidential nominee since 1980, the verdict came quickly on Saturday: The night belonged to Newt.
Less than five minutes after polls closed in South Carolina's GOP primary, news outlets called the race: Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich captured 40 percent of the vote, defeating Mitt Romney by 12 points and upending a Republican primary season that the former Massachusetts governor hoped to dominate.
In a packed meeting room at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Columbia, S.C., Gingrich supporters erupted in cheers as results rolled across flat-screen televisions. For the next hour, the room resembled a crowded bar: Songs like "Eye of the Tiger" and "Don't Stop Believin'" blared over loudspeakers as jubilant supporters brandishing "Newt 2012" buttons cracked open beers and danced across the room.
When the cramped space grew hot and claustrophobic, voters like Tanya Warsheski seemed unfazed. Warsheski stood near the back of the room holding high a homemade T-shirt emblazoned with an eagle and the slogan: "Dump Obama."
Despite national polls that indicate Romney would have a better chance of defeating President Barack Obama if the general election occurred today, Warsheski thinks Gingrich's recent debate performances prove the former House speaker would be a better opponent. When it comes to Romney, her assessment comes quickly: "Mitt Romney is a Republican version of Obama."
It's a criticism that Gingrich had echoed in campaign appearances across the state, calling Romney "a Massachusetts moderate" and insisting that the former governor isn't a conservative alternative to the president. But during his victory speech at the Hilton, Gingrich complimented his Republican opponents and assailed the president, posing the contest as a showdown between Gingrich and Obama.
But despite Gingrich's general election tone, the race isn't over. Indeed, by Saturday night, the contest represented a three-way tie: Earlier in the week, revised results showed that former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum had won the Iowa caucus. Romney captured the primary contest in New Hampshire, and now Gingrich has South Carolina.
In a speech from The Citadel in Charleston, S.C., Santorum-who placed third in South Carolina with 17 percent of the vote-emphasized what he called a level playing field, insisting that he would continue, despite Gingrich's earlier calls for the former senator to withdraw. Texas Rep. Ron Paul-finishing last in South Carolina at 13 percent-pledged to continue as well.
While Santorum put an upbeat spin on his third-place finish, the results were a disappointing loss for the staunch social conservative in a state full of evangelicals and socially conservative voters. Though Christian leaders like James Dobson, Gary Bauer, and Tony Perkins had joined other evangelicals in endorsing Santorum over the past week, early exit polls indicated that 44 percent of evangelical voters in South Carolina had voted for Gingrich.
Whether Gingrich can maintain his momentum in states less conservative than South Carolina remains unclear. Romney maintains a nearly 18-point lead in Florida, which holds the next GOP primary on Jan. 31. One thing is clear: If the next 10 days resemble the last three weeks, anything is possible.
Indeed, Gingrich's South Carolina surge peaked during the last three days leading up to Saturday's vote. His defining moment may have come with an indignant answer to a debate question Thursday night about his unfaithfulness to his second wife. When CNN moderator John King asked about an ABC interview with Marianne Gingrich, the candidate retorted, "To take an ex-wife and make it … a significant question in a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine." The crowd went wild.
The irony: Gingrich doesn't deny his infidelity. Though he does deny his second wife's contention that he asked for an "open marriage," he admits he committed adultery with Callista Gingrich, the woman who became his third wife. The candidate has called the infidelity a mistake.
His ability to turn the moderator's question about his moral failures to his advantage may have diverted a discussion about the relationship between character and leadership, but it's a topic that's may come up again. For voters like Warsheski-the Gingrich supporter in Columbia-the connection doesn't matter: "I think he has real life. A lot of Americans have been divorced. I think that speaks a hundredfold to our society."