Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich stormed to an upset victory in the South Carolina primary Saturday night, dealing a sharp setback to former front-runner Mitt Romney and suddenly scrambling the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
In victory, Gingrich praised his Republican rivals and attacked President Obama and "elites in New York and Washington."
Obama is "the most effective food stamp president in history," he said. "I would like to be the best paycheck president in American history." Those declarations and his attack on the "elite news media" reprised two of his more memorable lines from a pair of debates that helped fuel his victory.
The scene now shifts to a critical Jan. 31 Florida primary where Romney is ahead but no longer has the momentum.
Exit polls showed Gingrich led among voters who said their top priority was picking a candidate who could beat Obama -- a group that had preferred Romney in earlier contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Romney, the national front-runner until now, was unbowed. He vowed to contest for every vote "in every state" and unleashed a double-barreled attack on Obama and Gingrich.
Referring to Gingrich's criticism of his business experience, Romney said, "When my opponents attack success and free enterprise, they're not only attacking me, they're attacking every person who dreams of a better future. He's attacking you," he told supporters, the closest he came to mentioning the primary winner's name.
Returns from 95 percent of the state's precincts showed Gingrich with 41 percent of the vote to 27 percent for Romney. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was winning 17 percent, Texas Rep. Ron Paul 13 percent.
As the first Southern primary, South Carolina has been a proving ground for Republican presidential hopefuls in recent years. Since Ronald Reagan in 1980, every Republican contender who won the primary has gone on to capture the party's nomination.
Based on the vote total, Gingrich won at least 15 of the 25 Republican National Convention delegates at stake, and none of the other contenders was yet assured of any.
But political momentum was the real prize with the race to pick an opponent to Obama still in its early stages.
Already, Romney and a group that supports him were on the air in Florida with a significant television ad campaign, more than $7 million combined to date.
Aides to the former Massachusetts governor had once dared hope that Florida would seal his nomination -- if South Carolina didn't first -- but that strategy appeared to vanish along with the once-formidable lead he held in pre-primary polls.
Romney swept into South Carolina 11 days ago as the favorite after being pronounced the winner of the lead-off Iowa caucuses, then cruising to victory in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary.
But in the sometimes-surreal week that followed, he was stripped of his Iowa triumph -- GOP officials there now say Santorum narrowly won -- while former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman dropped out and endorsed Romney and Texas Gov. Rick Perry quit and backed Gingrich.
Romney responded awkwardly to questions about releasing his income tax returns and about his investments in the Cayman Islands. Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, benefited from two well-received debate performances while grappling with allegations by an ex-wife that he had once asked her for an open marriage so he could keep his mistress.
Things began to turn Gingrich's way in the first of two debates last week. When Fox News Channel moderator Juan Williams asked whether Gingrich's characterization of Obama as a "food stamp president" carried racial overtones, the former speaker brought the Myrtle Beach audience to its feet with a denunciation of political correctness and a passionate defense of the work ethic.
"The debate Monday night may have been a game-changer," Gingrich said in an interview with the Washington Post two days later.
Then Thursday night, he turned what could have been a devastating setback -- his ex-wife's nationally broadcast assertion that Gingrich sought her sanction for an open marriage -- into one of the most electrifying moments of his campaign. Asked about the allegation, Gingrich adamantly denied it after lambasting CNN moderator John King for even raising the subject.
By primary eve, Romney was speculating openly about a lengthy battle for the nomination rather than the quick knockout that had seemed within his grasp only days earlier.
Exit polling showed Gingrich leading by a wide margin among the state's heavy population of conservatives, tea party supporters and born-again Christians.
In a state with 9.9 percent unemployment, about 80 percent of all voters said they were very worried about the direction of the economy. Gingrich's edge over Romney among that group tracked the overall totals closely, the former speaker winning 41 percent and the runner-up 27.
The exit poll was conducted for the Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research as voters left polls at 35 randomly selected sites. The survey involved interviews with 2,381 voters and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Santorum vowed to continue, though his weak third-place finish could well portend financial difficulty for a campaign that has never been flush with cash. "It's a wide-open race. Join the fight" he urged supporters at a rally in Charleston.
Paul had his worst finish of the year and isn't expected to make a strong effort in Florida. Even so, he said to supporters, "keep fighting." He has said he intends to focus his efforts on caucus contests in Nevada on Feb. 4 and Missouri several days later.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, pinned his South Carolina hopes on a heavy turnout in parts of the state with large concentrations of social conservatives, the voters who carried him to his surprisingly strong showing in Iowa.
Paul had a modest campaign presence here after finishing third in Iowa and second in New Hampshire. His call to withdraw U.S. troops from around the world was a tough sell in a state dotted with military installations and home to many veterans.
Romney's stumbles began even before his New Hampshire primary victory, when he told one audience that he had worried earlier in his career about the possibility of being laid off.
He gave a somewhat rambling, noncommittal response in a debate in Myrtle Beach last Monday when asked if he would release his tax returns before the primary. The following day, he told reporters that because most of his earnings come from investments, he paid about 15 percent of his income in taxes, roughly half the rate paid by millions of middle-class wage-earners.
A day later, aides confirmed that some of his millions are invested in the Cayman Islands, though they said he did not use the offshore accounts as a tax haven.
Asked again at a debate on Thursday about releasing his taxes, Romney's answer was anything but succinct, and the audience appeared to boo.