RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. After a turbulent week of dropouts, reversals and impassioned pleas, in the end, it wasn't even close. Newt Gingrich beat Mitt Romney in the South Carolina GOP primary by 12 percentage points - a decisive win for the former speaker of the House, and a surprise for his rivals. The win scrambles the Republican race for the presidency. Voters have chosen three winners in the first three contests of the primary season.
In South Carolina, conservative Republicans rallied behind Gingrich at the last minute, undeterred by a week of tawdry revelations and negative campaign ads. NPR's Debbie Elliott spoke with voters about what swayed them.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: South Carolina Republicans were out in full force yesterday morning at Tommy's Country Ham House, in Greenville.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, I'm going one table at a time, OK, y'all? Thank you for your patience.
ELLIOTT: You could hardly get in the door when word spread that both Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were stopping by for breakfast. Terri Wood is standing on her chair, trying to catch a glimpse of Gingrich as works the room.
TERRI WOOD: I think they're turning the other way, mama.
ELLIOTT: Wood and her mother, Pat Hook, drove over from Greer. They weren't always behind Gingrich, first supporting Herman Cain and then Rick Santorum. But after last week's debates, Hook says, they've settled on the former speaker.
PAT HOOK: I believe Newt is the one that can win this election and change our country. I think he's up for the fight.
ELLIOTT: Daughter Terri Wood agrees.
WOOD: Think he's the one that's going to be able to take it to the liberals, chop them off at the knees. Because even in your own family, nobody can continue to borrow 40 cents on every dollar and not go over a cliff.
ELLIOTT: Exit polls show Gingrich did better with women voters than Romney did, and this mother and daughter were no exception. His second wife's claim that he had asked her for an open marriage doesn't hurt the candidate in Wood's eyes.
WOOD: He's admitted his failures, and I do believe he's been forgiven. He's asked for forgiveness. And, you know, if you look in the Bible, King David - he was forgiven. Anyone can be forgiven, and turn a new leaf.
ELLIOTT: Two tables over, Helen Shockley of Greenville says she was undecided until now.
HELEN SHOCKLEY: It was down to Romney and Newt, but I decided on Romney this morning.
ELLIOTT: Curtailing government spending is what matters most to her, and she doesn't think Gingrich is up to the task.
SHOCKLEY: He's a career politician, and I've decided I don't want that. I want somebody that has not been in Washington, D.C., for the last 30 years.
ELLIOTT: Exit polls show Gingrich led among several key groups in the South Carolina GOP - Christians, conservatives and Tea Party supporters - while Romney did better among voters who identified themselves as moderate or liberal. Gingrich has spent much of the campaign here trying to paint Romney as out of touch with South Carolina's conservative values. And it seems to have worked. Ben Smith is a retiree from Mount Pleasant.
BEN SMITH: I think he's a liberal in GOP clothing. You'd have to be, to survive in Massachusetts.
ELLIOTT: Even so, most voters say no matter who they voted for yesterday, they'll be able to rally behind the eventual Republican nominee come fall. Brett Pyle, of Greenville, liked both Romney and Gingrich but decided on the former speaker.
BRETT PYLE: Actually, this week was pretty foundational for me. As I saw Newt getting more and more popular, I thought this is good; we're going to have - even if it extends this whole primary process a little bit longer, I think that there's value in the conversation.
ELLIOTT: The main goal, he says, is to hammer out a candidate who can defeat President Obama.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Columbia, South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.