Debates Carried Gingrich

One of Newt Gingrich's bigger strengths, his deliberate debate performances, appears to have contributed largely to his victory in South Carolina.

Exit polls from the state show that the two-thirds of voters who said the debates were important picked Gingrich over front-running Mitt Romney 50 percent to 22 percent.

A perfect example of Gingrich's electrifying debate style was his response to the first question in Thursday night's forum, in which he turned a question about an explosive interview given by his ex-wife into a tirade about the mainstream media, which he accused of protecting President Obama. The crowd responded with whoops and cheers, rising for a standing ovation.

Gingrich has said that the Republican Party's nominee for president must be able to go toe-to-toe with Obama on the debate stage, and he has gone a step further by pledging to challenge the president to lengthy Lincoln-Douglas-style debates.

"Forty-five percent of South Carolina voters were focused chiefly on the candidate who's best able to defeat Barack Obama in November - and even these voters favored Gingrich over Romney, by a 9-point margin," ABC News's Gary Langer of Langer Research Associates said.

Langer also said Romney, once again, failed to win over conservative voters: "Other groups in which Romney has struggled, particularly in Iowa, went heavily to Gingrich. He won very conservative voters - more than a third of the South Carolina Republican electorate - with 45 percent of their votes. Rick Santorum and Romney trailed in this key group, with 23 and 20 percent, respectively. And Gingrich won four in 10 evangelicals, who accounted for six in 10 GOP primary voters in the state, again beating Romney and Santorum alike by 2-1 margins."

The interview by Marianne Gingrich appeared not to change the complexion of the race too much. Gingrich won women by 36 percent to 30 percent over Romney. Married women and evangelical women alike approved of Gingrich with 40 percent support.

"The second-most cited candidate attribute among women, after electability, was 'strong moral character,' and almost none of the women focused on this quality voted for Gingrich," Langer said of one effect of the interview. "But he more than made it back among the majority of women who picked other attributes as greater concerns."