Donald Trump dominated the night, with his double-digit victory over the rest of the Republican field, as Jeb Bush admitted it was time to call it quits for his candidacy. But the other story line to emerge was Marco Rubio's.
After what Rubio himself called a "disappointing" fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire Republican primary, he came roaring back in South Carolina to a virtual tie for second place with Ted Cruz, effectively denying Cruz the chance to turn the nomination fight into a two-man contest with Trump.
With 99 percent of the vote counted, less than 1,000 votes separate the two senators, both of whom claimed about 22 percent of the vote.
"This has been a three-person race and we will win the nomination," Rubio told his supporters Saturday evening.
He did get a late boost with an endorsement from Gov. Nikki Haley on Wednesday. Although just 25 percent of voters said Haley's endorsement important, 45 percent of them voted for Rubio, according to the CBS News exit poll.
Rubio also did well among late-deciding voters. He won nearly three in 10 of the 23 percent of voters who said they made their decision in the last few days, and a quarter of the 16 percent of voters who decided on primary day.
Trump, meanwhile, solidified his frontrunner status with a first-place finish that put him 10 percent ahead of his next closest competitors. The businessman is headed to Nevada to campaign Sunday and predicted he would do "terrific" both there and in the SEC primary, the collection of southern states that vote on Super Tuesday.
Trump did especially well among white evangelicals, a group that was expected to bolster Cruz's campaign. Instead, those voters broke for Trump, 32 percent to 27 percent. The businessman also edged out his rivals among men (capturing 35 percent of the vote), women (28 percent), older voters (33 percent) and those without a college degree (40 percent).
Cruz seemed to control the second-place spot in South Carolina from mid-December until a few days ago when Rubio's poll numbers began inching upward.
In his speech, he said he was "effectively tied for second place." He did not win a single county -- it was Rubio who stopped Trump from sweeping the state by finishing first in Charleston and Richland counties, home to the state's two most populous cities.
Rubio won 31 percent of the vote among people who lived in cities with more than 50,000 residents, more than Trump (23 percent) and Cruz (18 percent). Trump and Cruz both outperformed Rubio in the suburbs and small and rural cities.
With Rubio and Cruz now deadlocked, the race was immediately on to pick up supporters from Jeb Bush, who dropped out of the race after finishing fourth with just 8 percent of the vote.
Cruz said the former Florida governor "brought honor and dignity" to the race and called Bush "a man who didn't go to the gutter and engage in insults and attacks." Rubio said he was "the greatest governor in the history of Florida."
Trump didn't even mention Bush's departure from the Republican field, even though the former governor was a favorite punching bag of his. He did mock the pundits who have noted that all of the other candidates' support added together would top his own support in places like South Carolina.
"They don't understand that as people drop out, I'm going to get a lot of these votes also," he said.
The remaining two candidates are not yet ready to concede the race to Trump, Cruz and Rubio. Ohio Gov. John Kasich -- who didn't even spend election night in South Carolina -- said there was "a four person race" during his event in Wakefield, Massachusetts.
Since his second-place finish in New Hampshire last week, his campaign has acknowledged South Carolina would be tough territory for him. Instead, his campaign predicts he'll surge during the primaries in Michigan and other Midwestern states.
Kasich finished with eight percent of the vote in New Hampshire, just a little over 1,000 votes behind Bush, but said that he had "defied and overcome expectations" with that finish.
"For all the people watching -- you fasten your seatbelts, please," he said.
Former neurosurgeon Ben Carson was similarly unruffled by his last-place finish with 7 percent of the vote and promised supporters in Greenville, South Carolina, "I am not going anywhere."