Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) won a stunning come-from-behind victory in the South Carolina presidential primary on Saturday, using hard-edged debate performances to vault over former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. Gingrich was actually trailing Romney, in very early returns, after polls closed at 7 p.m. But exit polls made it clear that he had defeated Romney — a win that will profoundly re-shape a nominating contest that, a week ago, seemed to be almost over.Suddenly, Romney’s claim to be the GOP’s inevitable nominee looked dubious. Romney had arrived in South Carolina as the apparent winner of the first two GOP contests and faced an electorate that seemed open to his message that only a Washington outsider could restore free markets and sensible spending. And yet he was beaten by a man who had been the ultimate Washington insider.
At the same time, the victory in South Carolina seemed to validate Gingrich’s new model for a presidential campaign — which held that his own strong debate performances could overcome Romney’s edge in advertising and money. Here, it finally worked.
Across South Carolina on Saturday, voters had said they liked Gingrich’s aggression in debates — believing it would make him the best Republican to take on President Obama in the fall. “I think Mitt Romney is a good man,” said Harold Wade, 85, leaving a polling place in this picturesque seaside suburb outside Charleston. “But I think we’ve reached a point where we need someone who’s mean.” That was Gingrich, he said. “What we need is someone who’s got some brains,” Wade said, explaining his vote for the former speaker. “And we need someone with some guts.”Other voters said they’d chosen Romney, inspired by his experience as a business executive, and his steady character. They said they’d been unperturbed by Romney’s troubles this week, as the candidate struggled to answer questions about his wealth and the release of his tax returns. In Mount Pleasant, S.C., Michael and Elizabeth Ricciardone said they had decided long ago to vote for Romney and never wavered. “It’s okay to be successful in this country. Redistribution of wealth is not in my vocabulary,” Michael Ricciardone said. The dynamics of the race shifted in the last days before Saturday’s primary, with Gingrich surging after his aggressive performances in two televised debates.
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