Jan. 21 (Bloomberg) -- Newt Gingrich won the South Carolina Republican presidential primary election, television networks projected immediately as polls closed, giving the former U.S. House speaker his first victory in the race and upsetting rival Mitt Romney’s hopes for a quick path to the nomination.
Networks including ABC, Fox and MSNBC called the race before any vote tally was available.
Also running were U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Gingrich’s projected win means the Republican battle has now had a different first-place finisher in the three nominating contests as the race heads to Florida for a Jan. 31 primary.
Since South Carolina began its Republican primary in 1980, each of its winners has gone on to win the Republican nomination.
Iowa officials announced earlier this week that Santorum had ended up 34 votes ahead of Romney in the state’s Jan. 3 caucuses. Officials originally said Romney won by eight votes.
Romney, 64, won the Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary by 16 percentage points and came to South Carolina ahead in the polls of the state’s likely primary voters.
He was backed by the state’s Republican governor, Nikki Haley, who often accompanied him on his campaign stops, and was pushing for a win that would have put him in position to quickly wrap up the nomination.
Gingrich, 68, took aim at Romney’s tenure at Boston private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC, saying earlier 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.
Texas Governor Rick Perry dropped out of the race Jan. 19 and endorsed Gingrich.
That same day, Gingrich’s second wife accused him in an ABC News interview of having suggested they have an open marriage in the late 1990s that would have allowed him to continue an affair with his current wife, Callista.
Gingrich dismissed the accusation 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 debat 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.
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