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South Carolina primary exit polls: 2/3rds say debates mattered

South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate
Republican presidential candidates, from left to right: Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum; former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney; former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; and Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, take part in the South Carolina Republican presidential candidate debate, Jan. 16, 2012, in Myrtle Beach, S.C. AP Photo/David Goldman

Nearly two out of three South Carolina Republican primary voters say the recent Republican presidential debates played an important factor in their decision, according to early CBS News exit polls - a good sign for Newt Gingrich, who was widely seen as outshining rival Mitt Romney in both debates there this week.

Sixty-four percent said the debates were an important factor for them; just 34 percent said they were not. Gingrich won standing ovations in both debates while Romney often struggled - and at one point received a smattering of boos for equivocating over how many years of his tax returns he would release.

Gingrich, who polls suggest overtook Romney in the final days before today's primary, is hoping for a victory that would keep Romney from locking up the nomination before the end of the month. A majority of voters - 53 percent - said they made up their mind about who to back within the last few days.

The exit poll data showed that South Carolina voters overwhelmingly cited the economy as the most important issue, with 61 percent citing it. (The economy was the top issue in Iowa and New Hampshire as well.) It was followed by the federal budget deficit (23 percent), abortion (8 percent) and health care (4 percent). Seventy-eight percent of voters in South Carolina, where the unemployment rate is 9.9 percent, said they are "very" worried about the nation's economy.

As in Iowa and New Hampshire, South Carolina Republican voters cited electability as the most important quality in a candidate. Forty-five percent say it's most important that they have a candidate who can defeat Barack Obama in a general election, while 21 percent are most concerned someone with the right experience, 17 percent they have strong character, and 14 percent they are a true conservative.

Asked which candidate ran the most unfair campaign, 30 percent pointed to Romney, 26 percent to Gingrich and 14 percent to Ron Paul.

CBS News will release full exit poll data when the polls close at 7:00 p.m. Eastern

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