COLUMBIA, S.C. — With a resounding comeback win in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich sent a message to Mitt Romney: not so fast.
Saturday's victory marks a remarkable turnabout for the former House speaker, who has battled back twice from near political oblivion. And it showed that Romney will face a fight from the right in order to take the GOP nomination.
Gingrich won with solid support from conservative and evangelical voters as well as those worried about the economy, according to exit polling.
On Saturday night before a packed crowd at the Hilton in Columbia, Gingrich cast his win as a victory over the "elites." He was gracious to his competitors, even Romney with whom he has sparred.
With an eye toward Florida, Gingrich urged supporters to donate and get involved.
"We don't have the kind of money that at least one of the candidates has," he said in a reference to Romney. "And we proved here in South Carolina that people powered with the right ideas beats big money."
Gingrich had suffered humbling finishes in both Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina was seen as do or die. The former Georgia congressman played up his Southern roots and steadily hammered away at Romney as a Massachusetts moderate who had wavered in his support for gun rights and abortion. Gingrich also assailed his leadership at Bain Capital, accusing the private equity firm of "looting" troubled companies.
But it was a pair of fiery debate performances in Myrtle Beach and Charleston that sealed the deal for some South Carolina voters, who saw in Gingrich someone tough enough to take on Democratic President Barack Obama in the fall.
Even an 11th hour television interview from Gingrich's second-wife, Marianne, in which she alleged he had asked her for an "open marriage," failed to stall his momentum in the state with many religious conservatives.
Gingrich, 68, took nothing for granted, soldiering on through five campaign stops throughout the western part of the state Saturday, the last at a burger restaurant where he shook hands and posed for photos just before polls closed.
Gingrich now heads to Florida, where his lack of deep pockets and organization is likely to become more apparent because of the state's size. He will have to move quickly to capitalize on momentum from Saturday's win to reload his campaign warchest in time to launch ads for Florida's Jan. 31 primary.
Gingrich ran his South Carolina campaign in large part on bravado. He made the case that he was the only conservative able to halt Romney, despite being defeated by fellow conservative Rick Santorum in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
And when he scored points in debates it was often for assailing the questioner.
Gingrich was left for dead in the spring when his top constants and staff quit en masse after he left the campaign trail to take a luxury cruise in the Greek Isles with his wife, Callista. He struggled throughout the summer and early fall, but began to climb in the leadoff state of Iowa as a series of other candidates rose and faltered.
comment on this story
Leading in Iowa polls as recently as mid-December, Gingrich finished the Jan. 3 caucuses a distant fourth. He adopted a far harsher tone as the campaign moved to New Hampshire, beginning attacks on Romney's tenure as the head of Bain Capital.
But Gingrich hit his stride in South Carolina, where he drew enthusiastic crowds across the state.
He was helped along by an endorsement of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who dropped out of the race on Thursday, as well as Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a tea party favorite, who said if she was South Carolinian she would vote for Gingrich.
Follow Shannon McCaffrey: www.twitter.com/smccaffrey13