COLUMBIA, S.C. (BP) — Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich won the support of South Carolina’s evangelical and pro-life voters during that state’s GOP primary, helping him to win the primary with ease and to position himself perhaps as the leading challenger to Mitt Romney.
Gingrich won 44 percent of those who identify themselves as born-again or evangelical, besting Romney’s 22 percent, Rick Santorum’s 21 percent and Ron Paul’s 13 percent, according to exit polls. Evangelicals comprised 65 percent of the state’s GOP voters.
Among voters who think abortion should be illegal, Gingrich won 45 percent of the vote, with Santorum and Romney getting 21 percent each and Paul 11 percent. That bloc was 64 percent of the state GOP electorate.
Gingrich, in fact, won nearly every category — men, women, conservatives, Catholics and Protestants — in cruising to a primary victory with 40 percent of the vote to Romney’s 28 percent and Santorum’s 17 percent. More significant, he won all of the state’s 23 delegates and captured the momentum heading into Monday night’s critical GOP debate and Florida’s Jan. 31 primary, a winner-take-all state with 50 delegates.
Gingrich has surged ahead of Romney in several polls thanks to debate performances that have galvanized many GOP voters. The two South Carolina debates — both held the week of the vote — helped Gingrich flip a 10-point polling deficit to Romney into a double-digit primary victory.
Romney still leads the delegate count with 31, following by Gingrich (26), Paul (10) and Santorum (8).
Gingrich’s victory means that evangelicals and pro-lifers have voted for a different candidate in each state so far, with Santorum winning both blocs in Iowa and Romney doing so in New Hampshire.
Santorum did win in South Carolina among GOP voters who think abortion is the most critical issue, capturing 51 percent of that segment to Gingrich’s 29 percent, Paul’s 13 percent and Romney’s 6 percent. But that bloc made up only 8 percent of all South Carolina GOP voters.
After Florida’s voters have their say Jan. 31, the GOP calendar swings out West for much of February:
— Feb. 4: Nevada caucuses.
— Feb. 7: Colorado and Minnesota caucuses; Missouri primary.
— Feb. 11: Maine caucuses.
— Feb. 28: Arizona and Michigan primaries.
Compiled by Michael Foust, associate editor of Baptist Press.