Republican presidential candidates: Race opens up after Newt Gingrich takes South Carolina vote

THE South Carolina primary has set the stage for a fractious Republican race, as President Barack Obama prepares to seize initiative through a populist State of the Union address.

Newt Gingrich’s emphatic victory in the first southern state to vote has thrown any thoughts of a coronation for frontrunner Mitt Romney out the window – the first three ballots have now been won by different men.

Meanwhile, President Obama looks to set out his own campaign stall tomorrow, contrasting his agenda of “fairness” and “responsibility” with a Republican Party working for the interests of a “wealthy few”.

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Who will be challenging the incumbent for the keys to the White House is far from certain following the result from South Carolina’s primary vote.

A week ago, Mr Romney looked to be coasting towards the nomination, having seemingly won the first two state ballots and polling comfortably ahead in the third.

But in the space of 24 hours on Thursday, the race turned on its head. First, a recount in Iowa saw the former Massachusetts governor’s narrow victory stripped from him. Then, just hours later, Texas governor Rick Perry pulled out of the race, endorsing his fellow right-winger Mr Gingrich in the process.

It provided a further boost for the former House speaker, whose campaign was already on a roll in the state.

Even the inconvenience of having to fend off questions over his personal life – the thrice-married adulterer’s second wife cropped up on television to accuse him of asking her for an open marriage – did little to burst his bubble.

He angrily hit out at a “despicable, vicious and negative” media for daring to probe such matters during a feisty debate on Thursday night. It went down a storm with Republican voters, and helped him towards a storming triumph on Saturday.

Having trailed Mr Romney up until a few days before the count, he took the state by some margin.

Mr Gingrich received a 40 per cent share of the vote, with Mr Romney on 28 per cent. Former Pennsylvanian senator Rick Santorum came third, but the distance between himself and Mr Gingrich suggests he is losing the fight to represent the party’s right-wing.

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Likewise libertarian-leaning candidate Ron Paul’s campaign looks to be dwindling. He polled 13 per cent in South Carolina and has opted to give Florida, the next state to vote, a miss.

The size of Mr Gingrich’s lead was unexpected. It sets up a gruelling and potentially bitter two-horse race in the months to come. Having focused his attack on Mr Romney in the run-up to the count, Mr Gingrich turned his guns on Mr Obama in a triumphalist speech, suggesting that he believes he is in with a real shot at contending the run-off.

Mr Obama was a “food stamp president”, he told supporters, repeating a slur that some have suggested contains racial undertones. In contrast, the former House speaker would be the best “paycheck president in American history”, he said.

Mr Romney’s used his post-result address to attack Mr Gingrich over a series of negative campaign ads aimed at portraying the perceived frontrunner as a “predatory capitalist.”

“Those who pick up the weapons of the left today will see them turned against us tomorrow,” the multi-millionaire former businessman said.