Romney loses South Carolina to Gingrich; tells supporters he'll keep 'fighting for every vote'

Published: Saturday, Jan. 21 2012 2:00 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, stands with his wife Ann as he speaks at his South Carolina primary election night rally at the South Carolina State Fairgrounds in Columbia, S.C., Saturday, Jan. 21, 2012. Republican candidate Newt Gingrich stormed to an upset win in the South Carolina primary Saturday night.

Charles Dharapak, Associated Press

» View our political blog, with live updates and analysis of the South Carolina primary.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Moments after U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was declared the winner of South Carolina's GOP primary Saturday, Mitt Romney's supporters gathered for what they had hoped would be a victory party and started chanting, "Florida, here we come."

Romney told the small but enthusiastic crowd gathered in a state fairgrounds hall he was ready for a long and hard-fought race to the GOP nomination that will continue Jan. 31, with Florida's primary.

"In the coming weeks and months, I will keep fighting for every single vote. I will compete in every state," he said to cheers. "We're going to win this nomination and we're going to defeat President Obama in November."

Less than a week ago, Romney had hoped to deliver a "knockout punch" to his rivals in the first southern state to vote in the primary after a strong showing in Iowa and a win in New Hampshire earlier this month.

But Gingrich's harsh condemnation of the media while denying allegations from an ex-wife that he wanted an open marriage were a death blow to Romney's hopes of effectively securing the nomination Saturday.

"This is an astonishing victory," said Dave Woodard, a Clemson University political science professor and pollster who had been predicting a Romney win until less than 48 hours ago. "I've never seen anything where somebody who was outspent two-to-one could do well in a debate and come back like this. He's tapped into something strong."

Gingrich reached "frustrated and angry" Republican voters, Woodard said. "Here is a guy who could speak their language and catch their fire. They really rallied to him. That's what they want."

He said Romney, who struggled at the same debate to answer questions related to his personal fortune, has "got to be a fire-breather. He's got to show some passion."

That's not Romney's style, said South Carolina State Treasurer Curtis Loftis, who served as Romney's campaign chairman in the Palmetto State.

"I think he's a strong debater. He loves the ideas. He loves the issues. But he's just not one of these guys who can play to the media," Loftis said.

Gingrich made "an emotional appeal to the conservative voters of the state," he said. "I have real problems with that because I don't think pithy one-liners or conservatives running against the media does anything to advance the republic."

South Carolina voters, Loftis said, are "emotional people. We're conservative people. And I mean these are my brothers and sisters. This is who we are. I get it … it has an effect on me."

Gingrich has hammered Romney about his business dealings as head of Bain Capital, a firm that invested in troubled companies and fired employees in an attempt to make them profitable.

In his concession speech, Romney told the crowd that the "frontal assault on free enterprise" is an attack on "every person who dreams of a better future. He's attacking you."

He called it a mistake for the GOP to take on an issue already embraced by Democrats.

"The Republican Party doesn't demonize prosperity. We celebrate success," Romney said. "We cannot defeat the president with a candidate who has joined that very assault on free enterprise."

While Romney's supporters loudly cheered his speech, they were clearly upset at the election results.

Philip Lawson said he was "really disappointed in the people of South Carolina. That's all I am saying. I don't think that Newt Gingrich can get elected because he has so much baggage. He's got a smart mouth."

Bill Brown, a Romney volunteer, said he talked to many evangelical voters who wouldn't consider Romney because he is a Mormon, a faith they don't see as Christian.

Get The Deseret News Everywhere