Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Newt Gingrich won today’s South Carolina Republican presidential primary, derailing rival Mitt Romney’s bid to quickly seal the party’s nomination and throwing the race into turmoil as it heads to Florida.
Gingrich had 41 percent of the vote, followed by Romney with 27 percent, with 95 percent of the precincts reporting, according to the AP.
Former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania had 17 percent and U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas had 13 percent.
Gingrich’s win means the Republican race has now produced a different first-place finisher in the first three nominating contests. Florida holds its primary Jan. 31.
Gingrich, in a message on the Twitter social networking site, said: “Thank you South Carolina! Help me deliver the knockout punch in Florida.”
In a speech to South Carolina supporters tonight, he thanked them for deciding “to be with us in changing Washington.”
“The biggest thing I take from the campaign in South Carolina is it is very humbling and very sobering to have so many people who so deeply want their country to get back on track,” he said in Columbia, the state capital.
Romney, in a speech before Gingrich’s, insisted he was “going to win this nomination.”
In a nod to his loss, though, he told his audience in Columbia: “This race is getting to be even more interesting.”
The results stymied his bid to go into Florida with a chance to effectively end the nomination race with a victory there.
Instead, he could face a prolonged fight that might further divide Republicans already fractured over who to name to challenge President Barack Obama in the general election.
Romney and a group that supports him have already aired television ads attacking his rivals in Florida.
Since the 1980 election, every Republican candidate who won the South Carolina primary has gone on to capture the party nomination.
Nearly $9 million was spent on ads by the campaigns and their allies in South Carolina, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG.
Preliminary results from exit polls indicated that Gingrich surged in the final days of the South Carolina campaign. About 50 percent of voters said they decided who to support over the last few days, around the same proportion who said televised debates played a major role in whom they chose, according to the Associated Press.
The data showed the Republican primary voters were most focused on the economy and who could defeat Obama. More than half cited the economy as the issue that mattered most in their voting choice, according to the AP, while nearly half said they were looking for someone who could beat Obama.
As tonight’s results became clear, Santorum’s campaign announced plans to campaign in Florida, indicating that he intends stay in the race for now.
Santorum, who spotlighted his strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage, campaigned heavily in parts of South Carolina with socially conservative voters concerned about those issues. The exit polls suggested those voters were more concerned about beating Obama than ideological purity.
Paul, who stresses his libertarian views of a limited federal government, didn’t spend much time in South Carolina. His support for withdrawing troops from bases across the world was a tough message in the state, which has a strong military presence and large number of veterans.
Romney arrived in South Carolina with momentum after winning the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary by 16 percentage points. He was backed by the state’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, viewed as a rising star in the party, who often accompanied him during his campaign stops.
The final days of the South Carolina campaign, though, brought a series of surprises that reshaped the race.
Romney, 64, was stripped of his initially announced eight-vote victory in Iowa’s Jan. 3 caucuses earlier this week when state party officials reported a recount that showed Santorum ahead by 34 votes.
The Republican field also narrowed, as former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. dropped out on Jan. 16 and then Texas Governor Rick Perry did the same on Jan. 19, endorsing Gingrich.
Gingrich, 68, gained support after strong performances in two debates this week, even while facing allegations from an ex-wife that he once asked her for an open marriage to continue his affair with his current wife, Callista.
Gingrich dismissed the accusation as false and chastised CNN moderator John King for starting off a debate on the night of Jan. 19 with a question about the allegation.
“I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that,” Gingrich said in a comment directed at King that drew applause from the debate’s audience in North Charleston, South Carolina.
As he traveled the state, Gingrich took aim at Romney’s tenure at Boston private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC, saying this week the firm engaged in “exploitative” business tactics. He also hammered away at Romney for not promptly releasing his tax returns.
Polls showed the race tightening as Gingrich pressed his attacks and, in the final surveys, the former Georgia lawmaker pulled ahead.
In the final hours before polls closed, Romney backers argued that a quick end to the nominating contest would put their party in a stronger position to challenge Obama next fall.
“I want to end it in South Carolina because I’m watching the Democrats raise money by the day,” Haley said in Greenville this morning. “It is good for all Republicans and conservatives to end this in South Carolina.”