COLUMBIA, S.C. — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney told supporters Saturday he's going to compete for every vote in every state after former House speaker Newt Gingrich beat him in the South Carolina primary.
"Our campaign has fought very hard here in South Carolina and in the coming weeks and months, I'll keep fighting for every single vote," the former Massachusetts governor told supporters at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds, only mentioning Gingrich by name to congratulate him. "I will compete in every single state."
Romney wasted no time jabbing first at President Barack Obama for a lacking business or management experience, and then at Gingrich: "Our party can't be led to victory by someone who also has never run a business and never led a state."
Romney said Obama has attacked free enterprise and that "we cannot defeat that president with a candidate who has joined that very assault on free enterprise." Gingrich has attacked Romney's record running Bain Capital, a private equity firm.
The loss dampens Romney's momentum heading into Florida — the state that crushed his presidential hopes four years ago when he lost to John McCain and immediately dropped out of the race.
Romney came to South Carolina riding high on what were then twin wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. Gingrich finished far behind him in both contests. But Romney's narrow Iowa victory was revoked this week, and questions about his refusal to release his tax returns before April have dogged him day after day. He slid in polls in the last days going into the primary and ultimately lost to the former House speaker.
"We've still got a long way to go and a lot of work to do and tomorrow we're going to move on to Florida," Romney said Saturday.
It's a dramatic reversal of fortune for a campaign that just 10 days ago was hoping to perform well here, go on to win Florida and wrap up the nomination fight quickly. Instead, he spent the week ahead of the primary trying to fight off the surging Gingrich, who repeatedly called on the multimillionaire Romney to release his tax returns. Gingrich has attacked Romney as a "Massachusetts moderate."
In recent days, Romney has jumped from topic to topic as he has struggled to attack Gingrich. His surrogates have labeled Gingrich an "unreliable leader," while Romney has called on the former House speaker to release documents related to an ethics inquiry from the 1990s. On Saturday he shifted back to an attack he'd used in earlier debates, calling on Gingrich to further explain his ties to Freddie Mac. Gingrich was a consultant for the quasi-government mortgage agency over a period of eight years.
Romney still has significant advantages over his three remaining Republican rivals, including an enormous financial edge and a well-organized campaign. In next-up Florida, he's been organizing supporters for months and has particularly focused on absentee voters. Hundreds of thousands of voters have already sent in their ballots in Florida's primary.
Still, this primary season has been characterized by late-deciding voters. A majority of South Carolina Republican voters said they decided on a candidate in the last few days, and they favored Gingrich by a double-digit margin, according to exit polls. Romney had a small edge among those who said they made up their minds in December or earlier.
While they were confident early on, Romney's team was bracing for defeat by the end of the week. On Saturday, Romney said he would attend a debate Monday in Tampa, Fla., and his campaign confirmed he would be at one Thursday in Jacksonville, Fla., ahead of the state's primary Jan. 31. Romney did not confirm the appearances until the last minute, and they were an acknowledgment that the former Massachusetts governor would have to continue the battle with Gingrich longer than expected.
Romney plans to appear Fox News Sunday on Sunday morning ahead of a campaign rally in Daytona Beach, Fla. On Monday, Romney will campaign in the Tampa Bay area before the presidential debate.