RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
It wasn't too long ago Mitt Romney looked like he was on a winning streak; that maybe if things kept going his way, he could sweep all the early primary and caucus states. Now, his record is one for three.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from Romney's South Carolina election-night headquarters on how things turn so dramatically, so quickly.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: If you believe in signs and omens, this can't be a very auspicious one. Outside of the famously detail-oriented Romney campaign election-night headquarters, the ceiling is leaking. And that crack in the firmament was not the only hint that something was amiss for Romney yesterday. There was also this:
MITT ROMNEY: Yeah, we'd like to win here, of course, but we've got a long way to go.
SHAPIRO: Those are not the words of a candidate who believes he's heading for victory. Romney urged a breakfast crowd of supporters to take the long view.
ROMNEY: So come join us in Florida, then in Nevada, Michigan, Colorado; we've got a long way to go. We need to get 1,150 delegates. We're off to a good start. We're going to get more and more and more. With your help, I can become the nominee, and we can take America back.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
SHAPIRO: That tone is a huge turnaround from just a week ago. Coming out of his triumph in New Hampshire, it looked like South Carolina could be the scene of Romney's coronation, making him a triple-crown winner - three contests for three. Back then, people thought he had won Iowa by a hair, and that South Carolina was his to lose.
But late Friday night, the Republican Party in Iowa declared that Rick Santorum actually won those caucuses. And Saturday night, Romney lost South Carolina, too.
ROMNEY: This race is getting to be even more interesting. I'll, I'll...
SHAPIRO: His concession speech never named Gingrich. But Romney attacked the former House speaker unrelentingly, painting him as a doppelganger for President Obama.
ROMNEY: President Obama has no experience running a business, and no experience running a state. Our party can't be led to victory by someone who also has never run a business, and never run a state.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
SHAPIRO: Gingrich defeated Romney among a huge range of demographic groups - women; men; people of every education level but the highest; people of every income level but the highest. Even people who said their first priority is defeating President Obama in the fall favored Gingrich over Romney.
Romney told those voters last night, in effect, you're wrong.
ROMNEY: Our president has divided the nation, engaged in class warfare, and attacked the free-enterprise system that has made America the economic envy of the world. We cannot defeat that president with a candidate who has joined in that very assault on free enterprise.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
SHAPIRO: The crowd chanted "We need Romney" and "Florida, here we come."
But Romney supporter Brandon Katz fears that the South Carolina results may not bode well.
BRANDON KATZ: Who they usually pick is the one who usually ends up being the nominee, mostly because South Carolina is the first primary in the Southeast, which is predominately the Republican stronghold.
SHAPIRO: In fact, South Carolina has a perfect track record of picking the eventual Republican nominee. The question now is whether last night broke South Carolina's streak of picking winners, or unseated Romney as the winning pick.
Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, who supports Romney, urged people to take a deep breath.
GOV. TIM PAWLENTY: I think most observers, if they weren't looking at just the sentiment of this moment but stepped back a month - or three months or six months - would say, you know, Mitt was going to perhaps have a challenge on his hands in Iowa and South Carolina, but would do well in New Hampshire and then Florida and beyond. And so that plan is still very much intact.
SHAPIRO: It's true that Romney has always said that this nominating contest will be a marathon, and not a sprint. But until last night, he never sounded like he meant it. His campaign has raised the money and built the infrastructure to go the distance, if that's what it takes. Now, for the first time, it seems like they may be put to use.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Columbia South Carolina. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.