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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.
"There's still a lot of people who are hung up he's not a Christian. They actually said that," said Brown, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Virginia. "I told them, 'Look at the life he leads.' If that's not Christian, what is?"
Brown said while that attitude may not be as pronounced in other states, it's not going to go away. "It's going to be an issue everywhere he goes," Brown said.
Palmetto Family Council President Oran Smith said there is some concern a Romney presidency would be "worth millions of dollars in marketing and advertising for the Mormon church and we would be mainstreaming Mormonism."
Earlier Saturday, at a Columbia polling location, Justin Green said he considered voting for Romney but went for former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum instead.
"I felt like Mitt Romney has some hidden agendas, some things hidden that have not come out completely," Green, a veteran and university student, said after casting his vote at the Westminster Presbyterian Church.
With Santorum, Green said, "there's been no hidden ideas, no hidden beliefs. We know where he stands fundamentally. We know where he stands morally, what his beliefs are."
Green said he had concerns with Romney being a Mormon because of the money Romney tithes to his church.
"Religion is a touchy subject," Green said. "I feel like whatever your religious preference is, that's your preference, but to donate millions to a specific (church) … are you going to push for Christian beliefs or are you going to push for Mormon beliefs?"
Jim Koon, a retired phone company worker and part-time truck driver, said he voted for Gingrich, "the only one who can beat Obama because he can stand toe-to-toe on that podium and out-talk Obama."
Koon said the allegations that surfaced this week against Gingrich "made me want to vote for him more." He said no job seekers should have to worry about their former spouses being contacted.
"That's bull. That's bull jive," Koon said. "That's the lowest people can go, to do that. I'm divorced myself. I'm glad they didn't go back and check on me. That's why I voted for Newt Gingrich."
Koon said he considered voting for Santorum, but decided he didn't have enough of a chance. "If I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I wasn't going to throw my vote away, I'd vote for him," he said.
Realtor Frank Boyd also voted for Gingrich.
"I do appreciate and admire speaker Gingrich's aggressiveness on the issues," Boyd said. "He comes right out and says what's on his mind and what needs to be done."
Boyd said he "was very aware of (Gingrich's) personal issues" but that they had only "a minor bearing" on his vote. "Considering the state of the nation, I have to make some trade-offs there on who I think is really best for our nation."
Kris Militello, a middle school art teacher, said she had hoped to vote for either Texas Gov. Rick Perry or businessman Herman Cain, but settled on Romney after they dropped out of the race.
"I really liked Herman Cain. I think he would have given Obama an excellent fight. I would have loved to have seen that," Militello said. "But Romney's my man. I think he'll do well."
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