Newt Gingrich, whose campaign had been left for dead, scored a stunning upset win over Mitt Romney in the pivotal South Carolina primary, stripping him of his front-runner status and dramatically changing the race to choose a Republican challenger to United States President Barack Obama.
With 100 per cent of the precincts counted, 68-year-old Gingrich, former speaker of the US House of Representatives, captured 40.4 per cent of the votes compared to 27.9 per cent for Romney, who was backed by South Carolina's Indian-American Governor Nilkki Haley.
Rick Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania received 17 per cent of votes while libertarian congressman Ron Paul got 13 per cent in the primary held on Saturday.
Gingrich's shock victory over Romney has dramatically changed the race to become the Republican party's candidate against Democratic President Obama in November 6 elections. Given that for decades the South Carolina Republican primary winner had ended up bagging the party's presidential nomination, the result came as a big boost for Gingrich and blew a hole in Romney's aura of inevitability.
Gingrich's victory came just 10 days after his fifth-place finish in New Hampshire left the impression that his candidature was all but dead. So battered was his candidacy that Gingrich himself had conceded that his campaign might be over if he failed to turn in a strong performance. His win came days after his second ex-wife alleged that the former speaker had asked for an "open marriage" in which he could have both a wife and a mistress, an issue which some said could damage his bid for the White House.
In his victory speech, Gingrich called Obama a "weak" president and was highly critical of his record on the foreign policy front. "President Obama is a president so weak that he makes Jimmy Carter look strong," he taunted.
Gingrich thanked "everyone in South Carolina who decided to be with us in changing Washington." "We need to build on this victory by going to Florida. I need your help," Gingrich told supporters cheering, "Newt can win! Newt can win!" in Columbia. "If Barack Obama can get re-elected after this disaster, just think how radical he would be in a second term," he said.
With Gingrich's huge win, the Republican nomination battle is now wide open after Santorum's narrow win in Iowa, Romney's romp in New Hampshire. Florida, which votes on January 31, is the next stop in the state-by-state voting process.
The election result is a big setback to 64-year-old Romney, former Massachusetts governor who was leading the state till a week before and was looking forward to seal his nomination with a win.
Romney congratulated Gingrich for his victory. "Tonight I want to congratulate, of course, Speaker Gingrich and my fellow Republicans in a hard-fought campaign 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," Romney said at a post-election rally.
Romney's crushing defeat comes as a major setback for South Carolina's Governor Nilkki Haley, who not only endorsed him but also extensively campaigned for him.
Haley had won the South Carolina gubernatorial election with an impressive margin only a year ago, and her candidate not winning the Republican primary is an indication that her popularity is fast slipping away, which was also reflected in recent opinion polls.
The US media, reacting to Gingrich's upset win over Romney said the results represented a swift and extraordinary turnaround for the former house speaker.
Gingrich scored an easy victory in the South Carolina primary has blown a hole in Romney's aura of inevitability, the Washington Post said.
The 12-point win represented a swift and extraordinary turnaround in Gingrich's fortunes -- thanks largely to strong performances in two debates. In those forums, he issued a stirring appeal to the state's strident conservatism, convinced its voters he would be a formidable opponent against President Obama and threw Romney off his stride, the Post said.
"Mr Gingrich rode to victory by winning a plurality among a wide swath of important Republican voting blocs, outperforming the rest of the four-person field among evangelical Christians and Tea Party supporters, men and even women, despite the publicity given to problems in his first two marriages," The New York Times said.
Newt Gingrich's victory marked a stunning turnaround for a candidate who finished fourth in Iowa and New Hampshire and whose campaign had been left for dead -- again -- by observers just weeks ago, the CNN said