By Justin Sink and Cameron Joseph - 01/22/12 03:40 AM EST
The race for the Republican presidential nomination was upended Saturday as Newt Gingrich surged to a win in the South Carolina primary.
Gingrich's victory makes for many more uncertainties in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, which had seemed like a foregone conclusion a few days ago when Mitt Romney was in the lead in South Carolina polls.
The Associated Press, MSNBC, CNN and Fox News called the South Carolina race for Gingrich shortly after the polls closed.
With 99 percent of precincts reporting, Gingrich led by 14 points with 41 percent to Romney's 27 percent. Santorum was third with 17 percent and Ron Paul had 13 percent.
The delegate count to date, according to CNN, gives Romney 31 delegates, Gingrich 24, Santorum 10 and Paul 8. Delegates are being awarded proportionally until the April 1st contests.
All eyes now turn to Florida, the state with the next nominating contest. Romney is the only candidate on the air in that expensive media market.
Gingrich seems to be aware of that. Shortly after he was declared the winner Saturday night, he tweeted his thanks to his followers and this plea: "Help me deliver the knockout punch in Florida. Join our Moneybomb and donate now."
Romney is leading by double digits in polls of the Sunshine state. The latest poll, a CNN/Time/ORC one out Wednesday, showed him with 43 percent to Santorum's 19 and Gingrich's 18.
But helping the former speaker are the two debates next week, an area where he excels and Romney struggles.
The former speaker's campaign - trailing by double digits in South Carolina as recently as Tuesday - rode two strong debate performances to secure a win in the state that has predicted the eventual Republican nominee every election since 1980.
Exit polls showed a majority of South Carolina voters cited the debates as important factor in their decision-making process. Those polls also showed a majority of Gingrich backers believe he can defeat President Obama. That electability argument is usually cited as a reason by Romney supporters.
Gingrich downplayed his debate performances in his victory speech to supporters Saturday night, saying: "It's not that I'm a good debater it's that I articulate the deepest felt values of the American people."
Romney, meanwhile, blasted the former speaker in his election-night remarks.
“We cannot defeat the president with a candidate who has joined that very assault on free enterprise,” he said. “When my opponents attack success and free enterprise… they’re attacking you.”
He added: "Our party can't be led to victory by someone who has never run a business and never led a state."
He never mentioned Gingrich by name in his attacks but it was obvious who they were directed at.
"Our campaign will be about the businesses I helped start, not the bills I tried to pass," the former governor said.
A senior Mitt Romney strategist hinted at an increasingly sharp-elbowed campaign in the coming days.
"I think sharper contrasts will come into focus with the fact that you've only got one governor now and it's really versus Washington experience," Stuart Stevens said. "Republicans don't want to run against Barack ObamaBarack ObamaWebb: After the debate Why not Gary Johnson? Donald Trump, the Russian candidate MORE with someone who's going to run from the same zip code," describing Gingrich as a K Street lobbyist.
But one issue Romney didn't address in his remarks was his tax returns. His opponents hammered him on releasing his returns and the former governor stumbled in the debates when asked about the issue.
It will likely be an issue in the Florida contest too.
Romney's campaign also tried to downplay the South Carolina loss, emphasizing the state's predominantly conservative and evangelical voting base was never a natural fit for Romney.
Campaign aides argued that Romney himself had trailed Gingrich by more than 20 points as recently as December, and argued his 2012 showing was a marked improvement over the last election cycle, when he earned just 15 percent of the vote and finished fourth in the state.
Meanwhile Santorum says he plans to continue on to Florida and is confirmed for both GOP debates next week.
"Let me assure you we're going to Florida and then we're going to Arizona," Santorum said in his election-night remarks, to cheers from the crowd.
His campaign blasted out his Sunday schedule, which consists of campaign events in Florida, shortly after the race was called.
But Santorum might find himself under the type of pressure from the conservative establishment - themselves reluctant to rally behind Romney - that forced Rick Perry from the race earlier this week.
Santorum's exit would narrow the field to just three candidates, including the ever-lurking Ron Paul.
Paul shows no signs of exiting the race - he stayed in the 2008 contest until June - and has already begun airing television ads in Nevada and Minnesota. With a dedicated and passionate following, Paul should be able to remain in the race as long as he wants to. A winnowing field should also give him more and more influence at future debates.
But in an interview on CNN shortly after his speech, Paul said his campaign probably wouldn't focus on Florida, and instead concentrate on the upcoming caucus states.
"I think the money is better spent to go to the caucus states," Paul said. He did confirm he will participate in both Florida debates, however.
Niall Stanage contributed to this article.
-- This article was posted at 7:15 p.m. and has been updated.