Gingrich bursts Romney's bubble in South Carolina poll

Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista in South Carolina Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Will Newt Gingrich be able to become an anti-Mitt, a non-Romney - to unite conservatives?

The hotel hosting the Newt Gingrich victory party is packed, hot as a southern summer and scented with the sweet smell of bourbon.

I haven't seen so many people with such wide smiles for a very long time.

A mother, father, young daughter and younger son all hug.

A teenager in a smart suit pumps the air, almost in time with the music. Another plays air guitar using Newt's latest poster with its slogan "Unleash the American people".

Newt Gingrich's supporters have a lot to celebrate. This was a big victory in a state that since 1980 has always picked the eventual winner of the Republican race. But that is simply a historical fact, not a prediction, let alone an iron law.

The story of the Republican race for months has been the search for an anti-Mitt, a non-Romney, a single candidate who conservatives could unite around.

It is now possible, but by no means inevitable, that Gingrich has the momentum to become that candidate. Certainly he has burst Mitt's bubble, punctured the sense that he is the inevitable winner.

Some question whether Gingrich has the money to go the course. Others say he doesn't have the organisation to win in other states. A bigger question might be whether he has the discipline not to self-destruct.

After he was introduced with great fanfare at the victory party, he didn't appear. Indeed, the hot but happy crowd was made to wait 20 minutes and listen to a sound track twice before he did come on.

It's a small thing, but less than impressive.

His victory speech was a rambling rehash of his main themes with little sense of the occasion.

This is why Newt is the anti-Mitt, in more ways than just a main opponent. Whereas Romney is a bit grey, a bit obvious, rather safe, Newt is dangerous, unpredictable, a candidate who might soar, or might crash and burn. You watch fascinated, never quite knowing which it will be.

His triumph will almost certainly mean that this race lasts longer. If Romney had won here his victory would have been all but in the bag.

But it also means the race will get nastier. Republican opponents have already accused Gingrich of being grandiose, egotistic and unable to stick with a plan or work with others.

Mitt Romney used his speech to paint Gingrich as a dangerous, un-American enemy of free enterprise, with no experience of running a state or a business, of "using the weapons of the left".

It is part a way of scaring him off attacking Romney's business record at Bain Capital.

It is also an indication that - as the contest moves to Florida - these two will be at each other like snapping gators in the swamp lands.