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SC exit polls show conservative voters, economic worries fuel Gingrich win over Romney
WASHINGTON (AP) ' Strong backing from conservative and religious voters and worries about the frail economy fueled Newt Gingrich's victory Saturday in South Carolina's Republican presidential primary, according to early results from an exit poll of voters.
The data also showed that Gingrich, the former House speaker, grabbed a constituency that had supported his chief rival, Mitt Romney, in this year's two previous GOP contests in Iowa and New Hampshire. Gingrich edged Romney slightly among the nearly half of South Carolina Republican voters who are primarily seeking a candidate who can defeat President Barack Obama in this November's election.
By a small margin, Gingrich also bested Romney among the 6 in 10 voters who consider the economy the top issue in choosing a candidate. Romney has based his candidacy in large part on what he says is his economic expertise and ability to create jobs, citing his earlier career leading Bain Capital, a venture capital firm.
But in South Carolina, that background seemed to work against him. Nearly 1 in 3 said they had a negative view of Romney's prior work investing in companies and restructuring them, and almost none of those voters backed Romney. Among the rest, Romney had just a slight edge.
Around 4 in 10 conservative voters backed Gingrich in South Carolina, well above the 1 in 4 who supported Romney, the former Massachusetts governor. The numbers were similar among tea party supporters.
Gingrich outpolled Romney by similar margins with born again and evangelical Christians, the exit polls showed. Underscoring the role religion played, about 6 in 10 voters said it was important that their candidate share their religious beliefs, and Gingrich bettered Romney among those voters by about a 2-1 margin.
Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who had been vying with Gingrich for conservative support, trailed both Gingrich and Romney badly among conservative and religious-oriented voters.
Conservatives, tea party supporters and evangelical voters each comprise nearly two-thirds of voters in Saturday's contest in South Carolina, one of the nation's more conservative states.
The survey was conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research as voters left their polling places at 35 randomly selected sites in South Carolina. The survey involved interviews with 2,271 voters and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Associated Press global polling director Trevor Tompson contributed to this report.