Newt Gingrich defeats Mitt Romney in key US primary

NEWT Gingrich stormed to an upset win in the South Carolina primary last night, dealing a sharp setback to Mitt Romney in the race to choose a Republican challenger to President Barack Obama.

The win in the first southern primary marks a dramatic turnaround from Gingrich’s poor showing in the first two contests of the Republican presidential campaign. It sets up the likelihood that the race, which Romney once seemed poised to wrap up quickly, could drag on for months.

It also puts Gingrich in a position to establish himself as the true conservative alternative to Romney, who some Republicans see as too moderate. Romney has benefited by having the conservative vote divided among Gingrich, Rick Santorum and Rick Perry, who dropped out Thursday.

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Returns from 95 percent of the state’s precincts showed Gingrich with 41 percent of the vote to 27 percent for Romney. Santorum had 17 percent and congressman Ron Paul 13.

An exit poll conducted for The Associated Press and US television networks showed Gingrich led by a wide margin among the state’s heavy population of conservatives, born-again Christians and supporters of the tea party movement.

The poll by Edison Research involved interviews with 1,577 voters and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Gingrich also won the support of voters who said they cared most about picking a candidate who could defeat Obama. Romney has made the claim that he is the most electable candidate a key part of his campaign.

Democrats generally see Romney as the toughest potential rival for Obama, so Saturday’s results are likely to please them. They also wouldn’t mind a tough, drawn-out primary battle that could weaken the eventual Republican nominee.

Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, once appeared poised to sweep the first three contests in the Republican race and become the all-but-inevitable nominee.

But what had appeared to be a narrow victory in the first contest, the Iowa caucuses, was later determined to by a narrow loss to Santorum. He easily won the New Hampshire primary, but lost what had been a substantial lead in pre-election polls in South Carolina.

The conservative southern state has long been difficult territory for the former governor of the liberal northeastern state of Massachusetts. He finished fourth there behind the eventual nominee Sen. John McCain in the 2008 race.

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Gingrich pressed ahead despite poor showings in Iowa and New Hampshire, boosted by strong debate performances and shrugging off allegations by an ex-wife that he had once asked her for an open marriage so he could keep his mistress.

As his victory became apparent, Gingrich swiftly appealed to supporters for donations.

“Help me deliver the knockout punch in Florida,” he tweeted.