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What Gingrich's S.C. Romney-stomping means for FL's 'battle royale'

Columbia, S.C. -- Newt Gingrich crushed the once-mighty Mitt Romney in South Carolina’s first-in-the-South primary, in a victory that transformed Florida’s upcoming vote from a snoozer into a dogfight.

“This sets the stage for a battle royale in the Sunshine State,” said Nelson Warfield, a political consultant for former Rick Perry’s recently ended campaign who’s 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. But his win will reverberate throughout the nation, and especially Florida, where voters are like voters everywhere — they like a winner.

Gingrich won big time in South Carolina, gaining 41 percent of the vote to Romney's 27 percent. Rick Santorum won 17 percent and Ron Paul 13 percent.

In his victory speech, Gingrich lauded his opponents and condemned President Barack Obama, the news media and the “elites” in New York and Washington.

"The centerpiece of this campaign is American exceptionalism vs… 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 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 Bain “looted” companies, such as Miami-based Dade Behring. 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.

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