COLUMBIA, S.C. — Newt Gingrich crushed the once-mighty Mitt Romney in South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary Saturday, a victory that transformed Florida's forthcoming vote from a snoozer into a dogfight.
"This sets the stage for a battle royal in the Sunshine State," said Nelson Warfield, a political consultant for Rick Perry's recently ended campaign who is also a member of Florida Gov. Rick Scott's inner political circle.
"Newt Gingrich changed the narrative of this race," Warfield said. "Before South Carolina, Romney was the slow, inevitable candidate. And Florida was going to be his coronation. Now Romney has to fight."
Romney has already been waging a low-key battle in Florida, spending about $2.5 million on TV ads and roughly $1 million on mail to target the early and absentee Republican voters who have already cast almost 200,000 ballots in Florida — about 10 percent of the expected vote Jan. 31.
Early-voting precincts opened statewide in Florida on Saturday as South Carolina voters went to the polls.
Out-raised, out-spent and out-organized, Gingrich has done relatively little in Florida. But his win will reverberate through the nation, and especially Florida, where voters are like voters everywhere — they like a winner.
In his victory speech, Gingrich lauded his opponents and condemned President Barack Obama as well as the news media and the "elites" in New York and Washington.
"The centerpiece of this campaign is American exceptionalism versus … radicalism," Gingrich said. "We want to run not a Republican campaign — we want to run an American campaign because we are optimists about the future because America has always been optimistic about the future."
The day before Saturday's vote in South Carolina, it was clear Romney was in trouble. He started focusing more on Gingrich and a little less on Obama.
Romney and his campaign started tearing into Gingrich for his ethics problems when he was House speaker and for his role in advising Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. The attack on Gingrich's consulting for the lenders could be particularly potent in Florida, ground zero of the mortgage and housing meltdown.
When he conceded at 8 p.m. Saturday, Romney briefly congratulated Gingrich. Then, without naming Gingrich, Romney began indirectly attacking him for criticizing Bain Capital, a Romney-built venture capital firm that sometimes profited from laying off workers and closing factories.
Gingrich said Romney "looted" companies, such as Miami-based Dade Behring and others, when he headed Bain Capital. Romney and conservative critics responded by saying that Gingrich was attacking capitalism itself and sounded like a liberal Democrat.
"If Republican leaders want to join this president in demonizing success, then they're not going to be fit to be the nominee," Romney said to cheers on Saturday.
"Those who pick up the weapons of the left today will find them turned against us tomorrow."
At first, Gingrich's attacks on Bain seemed to have backfired amid wilting conservative condemnation. But some internal Republican polls showed that Gingrich's attacks had a good chance of turning voters off of Romney in South Carolina. The criticism of Bain could also find fertile ground in job loss-plagued Florida.
But Gingrich's greatest weapon is his mouth and the feisty bravado that captivated voters during two South Carolina debates last week.
With a judo-master's skill, he managed to turn a question about his previous affairs into a bold and self-righteous attack on the news media. Voters ate it up.
His three marriages and admitted affairs made little difference to voters like Rema Thomas, 60, of Chapin, an evangelical who decided on Gingrich after watching the debates.
"No one does not have baggage. Newt's was just exposed more because of his time in politics," she said. "I think it's time for a bulldog president. Grab 'em by the pants leg and don't let go until you draw blood. That's Newt."
Thomas said she knows Gingrich is a "hothead."
But with the sorry state of the country and a questionable crowd running the show in Washington, "what do we have to lose?" she asked.
Gingrich's election changed the electoral map in South Carolina. He won in conservative up-state counties like Spartanburg and he held his own in more liberal places like Charleston. Gingrich was able to make the election about the economy and, more importantly, about him and how his debate skills would shame Obama.
Exit polling showed the former House speaker leading by a wide margin among the state's heavy population of conservatives, tea party supporters and born-again Christians.
All of them play key roles in Florida's primary. Unlike the other early-vote states, Florida's primary is closed. Only Republicans can cast ballots.
"We actually have Republicans choosing the Republican nominees," said Brian Hughes, the Republican Party of Florida spokesman and a veteran political operative.
"A Cuban-American voter in South Florida and a Dixiecrat party switcher are vastly different people," Hughes said. "To be successful, the candidates have to communicate to them across 10 media markets and the vast geography of Florida while competing for more than 2 million votes. So winning that contest — winning Florida — means something."
But even if Gingrich won Florida — and that's a big if, considering Romney's organization — his viability as a candidate who can go the distance is unclear. Gingrich's name isn't on ballots in some states such as Virginia. If Gingrich doesn't win out, he'll break South Carolina's streak of picking the eventual Republican nominee.
It can be a killer for Gingrich and a plus for Romney if the election drags on because the nominee will ultimately be decided by the delegates won in each state's election. It takes 1,144 to wrap up the nomination.
Florida is a winner-take-all state with 50 delegates. Third-place South Carolina finisher Rick Santorum said he'll campaign in Florida. Fourth-place Ron Paul won't, but he'll focus on other states.
South Carolina has 25 delegates, but Gingrich might not get all of them because they'll be awarded to the winner in each of the state's seven congressional districts.
Romney could get some of these delegates. And only he has the money and organization right now to wage a nationwide campaign.
But elections and campaigns are unpredictable things — especially for Romney. Heading into South Carolina, he was 2-0 in early state contests. But Iowa recounted its votes and declared Santorum the winner.
And now Gingrich has won South Carolina, making Romney 1-2, despite the backing of South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who wasn't at Romney's side when he acknowledge defeat. Romney also won in New Hampshire.
Romney didn't help himself in the debates in South Carolina. He came across as flat and he waffled over whether and when he'd release his tax returns, which he eventually agreed to do.
That made an impression on Richard Indovino, a retired tax accountant from Pompano Beach, who voted for Gingrich when Broward County's early-voting polls opened. He felt Romney just wasn't steady.
"I don't like him flip-flopping. He can't come up with direct answers," Indovino said. "I would like him to be a little more forceful."
That's already happening.
Miami Herald staff writer Amy Sherman and Gina Smith, a reporter with the State newspaper, contributed to this report.