COLUMBIA, S.C. -- In a stunning revival, Newt Gingrich won the GOP presidential primary here Saturday with his voters gauging he could defeat President Barack Obama -- while ignoring the claims of an ex-wife that he wanted an "open marriage."
The former U.S. House speaker had a mighty win with 41 percent of the vote, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney came in second with 27 percent in a nasty South Carolina contest. The Florida primary vote on Jan. 31 is shaping up to be even more vicious.
The debates -- two in South Carolina in the past week -- were critical to Gingrich's resurrection. Exit polls showed that 64 percent of Gingrich voters said the debates were an important factor in their decision.
"It is not that I am a good debater, it is that I articulate the deepest felt values of the American people," Gingrich said in a rambling victory speech.
Romney showed he could not claim the nomination quickly after the Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina votes. The primary battle will be protracted.
"Three states, three winners, what a great country," said former Sen. Rick Santorum, who came in third with 17 percent. Ron Paul had 13 percent.
Santorum, in a belated decision announced Saturday, beat Romney in Iowa after all. Romney won New Hampshire and now Gingrich -- left for political dead last summer and after the Iowa vote -- leaves South Carolina risen with a decisive win.
The Gingrich turnaround came as he bashed the press in both South Carolina debates.
At Thursday's encounter, Gingrich won points when he roared at the moderator who asked about a late-breaking tawdry charge by an ex-wife that he wanted an "open marriage" while having an affair with the woman who became his third wife.
He kept it up in his victory speech where he excoriated "elites in Washington and New York."
No mind that he lives in the Washington suburbs and never returned to the Georgia district he represented in the House.
"The American people feel that they have elites who have been trying for a half century to force us to quit being American," he said.
Gingrich won most of those who said the most important candidate quality was defeating Obama, according to the exit poll.
The exit poll pointed to potential trouble ahead for Romney especially if the primary contest plays out for months -- since South Carolina voters in a variety of segment groups rejected his candidacy.
In South Carolina, Gingrich stepped up attacks on Romney's tenure at Bain Capital and his claim he was a job creator there -- making arguments that mirrored exactly the Obama team's hits.
Romney's speech after Gingrich's victory was hardly a concession, more of a warning to Gingrich if -- as expected -- he continues to slam him on Bain.
"Those who pick up the weapons of the left today, will find them turned against us tomorrow," Romney aid. "Let me be clear. If Republican leaders want to join this president in demonizing success and disparaging conservative values, then they are not going to be fit to be our nominee."
That puts even more of a spotlight on the two Florida debates coming up before the Jan. 31 primary vote there, Monday in Tampa and Thursday in Jacksonville.
After the CNN debate, Romney adviser Stuart Stevens told me, "having a debate every two weeks is getting to be a bit much. There is a reason you don't have a Super Bowl every week."
But if there was any question whether Romney would debate in Florida -- there were rumblings -- it was answered Saturday when his campaign confirmed he would.