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Sunday, January 22, 2012 - 5:05am

Victorious Gingrich Heads To Florida

Former House speaker and Georgia congressman 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.

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.

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