ANALYSIS: State's tea party liked what it saw
In the end, it wasn't close as Newt Gingrich ripped across the state and won all but two of its 46 counties.
His impressive showing blunted Mitt Romney's hopes of winning big on the coast and making a respectable finish in the Upstate -- essentially following Arizona Sen. John McCain's blueprint for victory here four years ago.
But each election is different, and this year, two televised debates changed everything.
When Clemson University political science professor Dave Woodard began polling South Carolina voters Jan. 13, Romney had a comfortable lead of 10 or more points.
That held firm until Tuesday --the day after the debate in Myrtle Beach, when Gingrich said black Americans should demand jobs, not food stamps. He denied such talk was insulting to Americans, especially blacks.
"More people were put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history," he said. "I know, among the politically correct, you're not supposed to use facts that are uncomfortable."
The remark stoked two things the tea party movement here savors: pushing back at the media and not being afraid of being called politically incorrect.
Woodard said that by Wednesday -- when YouTube clips and news snippets of the debate had circulated -- the numbers were flowing totally Gingrich's way.
Romney was able to win Charleston, Beaufort and Richland counties, but turnout was relatively lower there Saturday than in the Upstate's more reliably Republican counties, according to the State Election Commission.
The second debate -- held Thursday night in North Charleston -- might have helped Gingrich even more.
Charleston County's newest Republican, county Councilman Elliott Summey, particularly liked how Gingrich responded to CNN reporter John King's question Thursday about Gingrich's faithfulness in his second marriage.
He blistered King, calling it "despicable" to lead off a debate with such a question.
"The way he came back, I said we have a street fighter here -- a good old boy from the South who isn't afraid to say what's on his mind," said Summey, who was sitting behind Gingrich's wife, Callista, at the debate.
Exit polls confirmed that voters who had been undecided up until this week pushed Gingrich to victory, according to the Associated Press.
A majority of South Carolina Republican voters said they made their choice in the last few days, and they favored Gingrich by a 22-point margin. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Romney tied for second with this group.
Those two debates essentially helped erase what had been two poor showings by Gingrich in Iowa and New Hampshire. Gingrich finished low in both states, creating a perception that he couldn't win against the president.
But when South Carolina voters saw his fiery debate performances, those states' results mattered less.
Saturday's turnout was a record in terms of pure numbers, reflecting an energized Republican electorate.
More than 600,000 voters cast ballots, beating the previous record of 573,101 in 2000, when then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush battled Arizona Sen. John McCain here. The turnout was up 55,000 from four years ago.
Woodard said Gingrich had success here talking about how he would be the Opportunity President versus Obama's Food Stamp president.
"He's articulating something that touches into some anger and frustration that all these people feel," he said. "He touches a lot of groups in a very effective way. Despite all his problems, he can articulate something that gets them going better than anybody out there."