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South Carolina Primary: Newt Gingrich Defeats Mitt Romney, ABC News Projects

Richard Ellis/Getty Images(COLUMBIA, S.C.) -- Based on our analysis of the exit poll data, ABC News projects that Newt Gingrich will defeat Mitt Romney to win the South Carolina primary.

Gingrich's win Saturday is a significant blow to Romney, who until days ago held a wide lead over his rivals. But the front-runner status quickly evaporated as the former Massachusetts governor was hit hard on his reluctance to reveal his tax records and his leadership at Bain & Co.

Further analysis of the exit polls led ABC News to project that Mitt Romney will finish second, with Santorum and Paul vying for third.

Romney, 64, has said he will release his tax records in April despite calls from his rivals to do so immediately. Gingrich, 68, released his Thursday. The former governor, however, revealed that he paid a 15-percent effective tax rate in 2010, which is considerably lower than other Americans with comparable wealth. The lower tax rate was, in part, because Romney makes much of his money through investments and speaking fees rather than employment.

On the other hand, Gingrich's performance at the debates Monday and especially Thursday night injected fresh momentum into a campaign that, up until earlier this week, was overshadowed by Romney. Nearly two-thirds of Republican voters today cited debate performance as at least a somewhat important factor in their vote today, per early exit poll results.

The late surge worked in Gingrich's favor. A little more than half of South Carolina voters said they decided whom to support in the past few days, according to preliminary exit polls, a much larger number than in 2008.

South Carolina is an important race in the Republican primaries. No candidate has ever won the GOP nomination for president without winning South Carolina since 1980, when it became home to the nation's first-in-the-South primary.

The evangelical vote was crucial in Saturday's primary, significantly more so than in Iowa and New Hampshire. Nearly two-thirds of GOP voters in South Carolina were born-again or evangelical Christians, a new high in this nominating cycle, compared with 57 percent in Iowa and 22 percent in New Hampshire, according to preliminary exit poll results.

Nearly four in 10 Republican voters described themselves as "very" conservative, while slightly more than one-third of them said they were strong supporters of the Tea Party movement.

As in Iowa and New Hampshire, the candidate attribute that voters were most concerned about was who could defeat President Obama in November.

Concerns about the economy ran deep in South Carolina, where the unemployment rate is above the national average. Preliminary exit polls showed that nearly eight in 10 voters were "very" worried about the direction of the economy, and one-third reported a layoff in their own household in the past three years.

The South Carolina Republican Party predicted a higher-than-normal turnout in today's primary. Thus far, turnout has appeared to vary throughout the state. It was, however, particularly heavy in Greenville, South Carolina's most populous county that has a history of favoring socially conservative candidates. In 2008, Romney received only 17 percent of the votes in Greenville, a county that Mike Huckabee carried.

It was in similar counties where Gingrich and Santorum fought heavily for the title of the anti-Romney candidate.

In Lexington, another county that has served as a bellwether in recent years, turnout was mostly light.

The next Republican contest is in Florida, Jan. 31, where Romney has already poured millions of dollars on television advertising and on-the-ground efforts.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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