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COLUMBIA, S.C. — After one of the most tumultuous weeks in recent political history, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich swept to a come-from-behind victory in the South Carolina primary Saturday that upended and threatened to prolong the Republican nomination fight.
The Georgian’s margin in exit polls was so comfortable that television networks and the Associated Press were able to call his victory shortly after polls closed in a state whose GOP primary winner has gone on to capture the nomination in every election since 1980.
The contest now moves to Florida, where former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who was toppled from his front-running position almost overnight, still holds financial and logistical advantages.
But that was true in the Palmetto State as well when the campaigning moved here from New Hampshire.
After lagging in New Hampshire and in the first test in Iowa, the Gingrich campaign appeared only a week ago to be headed to oblivion.
But strong showings in two debates, always the lifeblood of the unorthodox Gingrich campaign, along with repeated stumbles by Mr. Romney, produced a tectonic shift in the Republican landscape.
Mr. Romney’s second-place finish in South Carolina Saturday night was followed by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum in third and Texas Rep. Ron Paul in fourth place in a GOP field that had been pared last week by the withdrawals of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
“This race is getting to be even more interesting,” Mr. Romney said as he opened his concession speech. “This is a hard fight because there’s so much worth fighting for. … We still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. Tomorrow we’re going to move on to Florida.”
The gyrations of the last week were a microcosm of a Republican race that has produced a cascade of front-runners, some of whom are no longer campaigning.
Mr. Gingrich’s bid appeared all but over last summer, when his coffers were nearly empty and much of his senior staff resigned.
But he kept showing up at the long line of debates that have driven this contest and several strong showings allowed him to take the polling lead in Iowa by early December.
But then he came under a concerted multimillion-dollar assault from the Romney campaign and its allies, Mr. Paul and Mr. Perry, who endorsed him when he left the race.
The result for Mr. Gingrich was disappointing finishes in Iowa and the Granite State.
He was effectively left for dead again.
But in the final days of the New Hampshire campaign, he appeared to have found an effective line of attack against Mr. Romney, pressing him to release his tax returns and continually questioning his business practices as head of the investment firm Bain Capital.
Mr. Gingrich’s candidacy appeared to be rocked by an interview from his second wife, Marianne Gingrich, who claimed he had pressed her to have “an open marriage.”
But Mr. Gingrich, in the sharpest example of a tactic he has pursued throughout the debates, criticized the moderator of a debate Thursday night when he was asked about his marital history.
The attack on the media won applause in the debate hall and resonated beyond as exit polls showed that Mr. Gingrich had a distinct advantage with voters who decided in the last days before the primary.
The results also reflected missteps by Mr. Romney, particularly in a series of equivocating answers on whether and when he would release his tax returns.
Mr. Romney rebutted the attacks on his business background Saturday night, essentially saying that Mr. Gingrich was shooting the Democrats’ bullets for them.
“Over the past few weeks, we have seen a frontal assault on free enterprise. That’s a mistake for our party and our nation,” he said. “Those who pick up the weapons of the left today will find them turned against us tomorrow.”
Mr. Santorum vowed to press on as well, releasing his campaign schedule for Florida soon after the polls closed. He planned to campaign in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday, and he told CNN on Saturday night that he was already planning campaign appearances in Colorado and other states further along the primary and caucus trail.
“Three states, three winners, what a great country,” he said, alluding to the belated report that he had more votes in the first contest in Iowa despite trailing by eight votes in the tally released by Iowa Republicans on caucus night.
Mr. Paul professed to be encouraged by his fourth-place result, insisting that while he trailed his rivals his cause was steadily attracting more attention and support.
“We got four to five times more votes than we did four years ago,” he said. “There’s every reason to be encouraged.”
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O’Toole is politics editor at the Post-Gazette.
Contact James O’Toole at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1562.