CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC/AP) - Newt Gingrich stormed to an upset win in the South Carolina primary Saturday night, dealing a sharp setback to Mitt Romney and scrambling the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Texas Rep. Ron Paul trailed badly. Exit polling showed the former House speaker leading by a wide margin among the state's heavy population of conservatives, tea party supporters and born-again Christians.
With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Gingrich received 41 percent of the vote compared to Romney's 27 percent. Santorum finished third with 17 percent and Ron Paul took 13 percent.
Romney actually edged out Gingrich in Charleston County, taking 36 percent of the vote compared to Gingrich's 33 percent.
"Let me first of all say thank you to everybody in South Carolina who decided to be with us to change things in Washington," Gingrich told supporters following his win in South Carolina. "The biggest thing I take in from South Carolina, is it is very humbling and very sobering to have so many people who so deeply want their country to get back in the right track."
Gingrich told the crowd that he was not running a Republican campaign but an American campaign.
"Thank you, South Carolina! Help me deliver the knockout punch in Florida. Join our Moneybomb and donate now," he tweeted.
For the first time all year, Romney trailed among voters who said they cared most about picking a candidate who could defeat President Barack Obama this fall. Gingrich was ahead of the field for those voters' support.
Following the announcement of Gingrich's win, Mitt Romney was greeted in Columbia by cheers from supporters for which he replied,"You should hear it when we win. I'll tell you it's really something."
Romney then went onto thank those that have supported him through his campaign, including Gov. Nikki Haley, and congratulate Newt Gingrich on his win.
"It was an exciting day for us and I just want to say thanks to everybody that helped," Romney said. "I want to congratulate, of course, speaker Gingrich and my fellow Republicans at a hard fought campaign here in South Carolina. We're now three contests into a long primary season. This is a hard fight, because there's so much worth fighting for."
Referring to 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."
Romney went onto say that his campaign had fought very hard in South Carolina and that he will "keep fighting for every single vote and compete in every single state."
In a state with 9.9 percent unemployment, concern about the economy was high, and almost one-third of those voting reported a household member had lost a job in the past three years.
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 1,577 voters and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Santorum announced shortly after the polls closed that he would open his campaign in Florida on Sunday.
Paul has said he intends to skip the state and 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, although they said he did not use the offshore accounts as a tax haven.
Asked again at a debate in North Charleston on Thursday about releasing his taxes, his answer was anything but succinct and the audience appeared to boo.
Gingrich benefited from a shift in strategy that recalled his approach when he briefly soared to the top of the polls in Iowa. At mid-week he began airing a television commercial that dropped all references to Romney and his other rivals, and contended that he was the only Republican who could defeat Obama.