Voters in South Carolina weathered the elements on Saturday and headed to the polls to make their choice for GOP presidential candidate. They picked former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich by a wide margin.
That would have been a surprise a few weeks ago, especially consider Gingrich's rather lackluster performances in both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. But following some strong debate performances -- and testy exchanges with moderators -- Gingrich experienced a last-minute surge to the top of the pack in South Carolina. Furthermore, he did it with the strong support of conservative Tea Party and evangelical voters, who appeared happy to overlook an interview given by Gingrich's second ex-wife in which she claimed that he had asked her for an "open marriage."
The loss in South Carolina is a tough pill for Mitt Romney to swallow, who, on the heels of a victory in New Hampshire was thought to have been well on his way toward becoming the presumptive Republican nominee. He began campaigning in the Palmetto State with the support of its governor, Nikki Haley. But a few days before the South Carolina contest, Romney's first-place finish in Iowa was reversed, following a certification of lost votes which gave the win to Rick Santorum. Soon thereafter, Romney saw a dip in his own popularity, coming amid increasing scrutiny of his personal finances, sparked primarily by evasive comments about whether he would release his tax returns.
Now with Gingrich, Romney, and Santorum each winning a primary -- and Ron Paul continuing to nip at their heels, apparently with no plans of leaving the race -- the GOP primary has hit a full reset. The candidates and the media that covers them now head to Florida to compete in its Jan. 31 primary, which is now more important than ever.
The primary season now stands to remain competitive for longer than previously expected, which will give the nation, and its president, more time to view the increasingly hostile spectacle.
Take a look below at the winners and losers of the South Carolina primary, and vote for who you think came out on top:
Gingrich's resurgence and eventual victory was unexpected, to say the least. As of a week ago, he was polling around the middle of the pack and few expected his candidacy to take off in South Carolina. He experienced a small bump in the middle of the week, when Texas Gov. Rick Perry dropped out of the race and threw his support behind the former speaker of the House. But that spark was nearly doused when his ex-wife gave an interview to ABC News claiming that he'd asked her for an open marriage while engaging in an affair with Callista Bisek, a Hill staffer who has since married Gingrich and taken his last name. South Carolina voters seemed largely unfazed by this development, however, and Gingrich managed to use the interview to his advantage during the week when he was asked to answer a question about it at a GOP presidential debate.
Romney has lost his status as the presumptive GOP nominee with his second-place finish in South Carolina. He had a chance to effectively lock up the nomination with a win in the Palmetto State on Saturday, but instead he'll be forced to fight through the inevitable slog of campaigning in later primary states. His attempts to paint himself as the candidate most qualified to fix the economy and best suited to defeat President Barack Obama appeared not to resonate in South Carolina, a state that has accurately selected the Republican nominee in every election since 1980.
South Carolina remained relevant for all of 15 seconds after the polls closed tonight. Then, with the cable networks quickly calling the race for Newt Gingrich, campaigns began scrambling toward the next primary state: Florida. Battered by his large defeat, Mitt Romney led the charge south. His staff began promoting their Florida plans just minutes after polls closed at 7 p.m., and Romney supporters belted out Florida chants while waiting for their candidate to speak. His mentioning of the state earned him massive cheers. Rick Santorum, finishing a distant third, was also eager to put South Carolina behind him. The former Pennsylvania senator quickly announced campaign events in Florida for Monday and Tuesday. But even the candidate who owned the night in South Carolina appeared to be moving rapidly on to the next contest. Newt Gingrich quickly tweeted that Florida would be the "knockout punch" for Romney and urged his followers to donate to his campaign.
Nikki Haley was a Tea Party darling in 2010, riding their support to the South Carolina governorship. Mitt Romney featured her in a commercial as late as Friday (a video that was rapidly unlisted from his YouTube page), hoping to capitalize on her conservative credentials in a state where exit polls showed 65 percent of voters supported the Tea Party. But the Haley strategy backfired in epic fashion: A PPP poll showed that her endorsement actually made a quarter of South Carolina voters less likely to choose Romney. Only 14 percent said her endorsement would have a positive effect.
Evangelical and Tea Party voters proved to be influential demographics in the South Carolina primary. As exit poll data showed Saturday night, 65 percent of voters in the primary identified themselves as evangelical or born-again Christians. The data also found that 65 percent of voters supported the Tea Party movement. In conservative South Carolina, the two groups may have meant all the difference for Newt Gingrich.
President Barack Obama will eventually have to face one of the remaining four GOP presidential candidates. The longer they are forced to focus their attention and attacks at each other, the better for Obama. With the GOP primary now expected to go until May at least, Obama will be able to run a positive campaign, attempting to rally his supporters around his first-term record, while letting his challengers tear each other to shreds.
Gingrich's momentum was largely spurred by strong debate performances during the week before the South Carolina primary. While he stood strong on stage with his fellow candidates, the most memorable -- and most roundly applauded -- moments came when he turned his tongue on the moderators of the debates. He received a standing ovation for ripping into Fox News' Juan Williams after he asked a question about Gingrich's controversial statements on race and poverty. He received a similarly roaring response when he eviscerated CNN's John King for asking him about a recent interview his second ex-wife gave in which she claimed that Gingrich had asked her for an open marriage.