COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -- Former House speaker Newt Gingrich took a giant step Saturday toward becoming the Republican alternative to Mitt Romney that tea partyers and social conservatives have been seeking for months.
Gingrich's come-from-behind win in the South Carolina primary snatches away the quick and easy way for the GOP to pick its presidential nominee. Only days ago, it seemed that party activists would settle for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who stirs few passions but who has the looks, money, experience and discipline to make a solid case against President Barack Obama in November.
Now, the party cannot avoid a wrenching and perhaps lengthy nomination fight. It can cast its lot with the establishment's cool embodiment of competence, forged in corporate board rooms, or with the anger-venting champion of in-your-face conservatism and grandiose ideas.
It's soul-searching time for Republicans. It might not be pretty.
Romney still might win the nomination, of course. He carries several advantages into Florida and beyond, and party insiders still consider him the frontrunner. And it's conceivable that former Sen. Rick Santorum can battle back and take the anti-Romney title from Gingrich. After all, he bested Gingrich in Iowa and New Hampshire.
But Santorum's lackluster finish in South Carolina will doubtlessly prompt some conservative leaders to urge him to step aside and back Gingrich, as Rick Perry did Thursday.
Even if Santorum revives his campaign in Florida, the fundamental intra-party debate will be the same. Voters associate Gingrich and Santorum with social issues such as abortion, and with unyielding fealty to conservative ideals. That's in contrast to Romney's flexibility and past embraces of legalized abortion, gun control and gay rights.
Rep. Ron Paul will stay in the race, but he factors only tangentially in such discussions. His fans are largely a mix of libertarians, isolationists and pacifists, many of whom will abandon the GOP nominee if it's not the Texas congressman.
Strategically, Romney maintains a big edge in money and organization. He faces a dilemma, however. Gingrich resuscitated his struggling campaign in this state with combative debate performances featuring near-contempt for Obama and the news media. Romney likely would love to choke off that supply by drastically reducing the number of debates.
Ducking Gingrich after losing to him in South Carolina would suggest panic or fear, however, and all four candidates are scheduled to debate Monday in Florida.
Gingrich is benefitting "from the inherent animosity and mistrust GOP primary voters have with mainstream media," said Republican strategist Terry Holt. "Their first instinct is to rebel, and that's what they did. The question is whether he can sustain that anger and build it into a legitimate challenge to the frontrunner."
Despite their contrasting personalities, Romney and Gingrich don't differ greatly on policy. Both call for lower taxes, less regulation, ending "Obamacare" and a robust military. They promise to cut spending and increase jobs without offering many details of how they would do so in a divided nation and Congress.
Romney vs. Gingrich in some ways mirrors the Democrats' 2008 choice between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, which turned mostly on questions of personality, style and biography. The Republicans' choice, however, will plumb deeper veins of emotion and ideology.
Romney appeals to Republicans who want a competent, even-tempered nominee with a track record in business and finance. His backers are willing to overlook his past support of abortion rights and his seeming tone-deafness on money matters (even if it feeds caricatures of him as a plutocrat).
Until Saturday, GOP polls had shown Romney easily ahead on the question of who would be Obama's toughest challenger. South Carolina exit polls, however, showed Gingrich with an edge among those who said it was most important that their candidate be able to beat Obama.
South Carolina Republicans have steered the primary contest into more emotional, and possibly dangerous, waters. They rewarded a candidate who gave voice to their resentment of the news media, federal bureaucrats and what they see as undeserving welfare recipients and a socialist-leaning president.
Two South Carolina debate moments crystalized Gingrich's rise. Both involved an open disdain for journalists, whether feigned or not.
In Myrtle Beach on Monday, the Martin Luther King holiday, Gingrich acidly told Fox News' Juan Williams that he would teach poor people how to find jobs, and that Obama has put more Americans on food stamps than any other president. On Thursday in North Charleston, Gingrich excoriated CNN's John King for raising an ex-wife's claim that Gingrich once asked for an "open marriage," to accommodate his mistress.
Conservatives inside the hall and out seemed to love the tongue-lashing. The details of Marianne Gingrich's allegations, which Gingrich denied almost as an afterthought, seemed to matter much less to voters. That's remarkable in a state whose GOP electorate is nearly two-thirds evangelicals.
Mike McKenna, a Republican strategist, said Gingrich seems to be drawing many people, including tea party activists, who are fairly new to politics. They don't know or care much about Gingrich's legacy of leading the 1994 Republican revolution in Congress, or his subsequently lucrative career as a writer and speaker that sometimes veered from conservative orthodoxies, McKenna said.
Instead, he thinks these voters are reacting emotionally to someone they hope "can take the fight to the president, to the media, to whomever. They are not particularly concerned about what kind of president he will be."
Therein, of course, is the potential peril of a Gingrich candidacy. Along with his verbal fireworks he carries baggage that might give Democrats more to exploit than do Romney's policy flip-flops and record at Bain Capital, a venture capital firm.
Republicans have weathered intense internal debates before. Barry Goldwater pioneered a combative brand of conservatism that paved the way for Ronald Reagan, eventually killed off "Rockefeller Republicans," and made the GOP the party of the South, the Mountain West and few minorities.
The Romney-Gingrich faceoff won't reach such ideological depths. But it will force Republicans to make a hot-or-cool choice.
They can pick the data-driven Harvard MBA grad who smoothed out the Winter Olympics and now runs a by-the-numbers nationwide campaign. Or they can pick the pugnacious firebrand who didn't manage to get his name on the Virginia primary ballot, but who wows an angry electorate that can't wait to lay into Obama in debates next fall.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Charles Babington covers politics for The Associated Press.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)