Paul crowd realistic, but happy; Newt slings fries at Chick-fil-A: Scenes from the South Carolina primary

COLUMBIA, S.C.-- Though they chanted "President Paul!" throughout the Texas Congressman's speech here at Jillian's Billiards Club, many supporters in the crowd revealed they're fully aware Paul may not win. Not that they were feeling particularly blue.

"This is more about ideas than winning or losing," Terry McIntyre of Charlotte, N.C., told Yahoo News. "I'm hoping he wins. But, you can't stop an idea."

"The 'sheeple' ... have forgotten the fundamentals of the Constitution!" Jason Sprankle, a Columbia resident and military veteran, told Yahoo News. Yet Sprankle, who didn't seem surprised by how the results shook out on Saturday, was optimistic about Paul's message reaching the American people.

Others echoed Paul's own words, noting that his campaign is the only one that hasn't seen its support move "up-and-down."

"It's what we expected," Jeff Halldorson of Dover, N.H., said of Saturday's results. "As long as we're seeing positive growth, that's what's important,"

Paul is projected to come in fourth in South Carolina's primary. He has no plans to compete in the delegate-rich but expensive state of Florida, and reiterated Saturday that he will be focused on caucus states like Nevada, Maine and Minnesota in the coming weeks.

--Rachel Rose Hartman, 9:10 p.m. ET

COLUMBIA, S.C.—An important phase of the Republican primary race is ending tonight, and I am not referring to the sudden tarnishing of Mitt Romney's aura of inevitability. With the candidates headed to Florida (a state where nearly 2 million Republicans voted in the 2008 primary), the curtain will ring down on the up-close-and-personal campaign season. Gone except for photo-ops will be pilgrimages to places like the Pizza Ranches of Iowa and the pork-barbecue palaces of South Carolina. With great distances to cover (campaigning from Miami to the Florida panhandle), planes will increasingly replace buses and news stories will be sprinkled with the supposedly clever things that candidates said over the airborne public-address systems.

What that means is that, from here on, any voter who sees a presidential candidate in person is so atypical that his or her reactions tell you almost nothing about the contours of the campaign. Here in South Carolina, watching the enthusiasm at meet-the-voters campaign events allowed experienced reporters to tell that Newt Gingrich was on the rise well before the survey research kicked in. But from now on, we will live in a political environment in which polls dominate all discussions of the horserace. And as Rick Santorum in Iowa and Gingrich in South Carolina will eagerly testify, recent polling has been about as reliable as newspaper astrology columns.

As the candidates run flyover campaigns and depend increasingly on 30-second TV spots, about the only thing that will remain constant are the voters themselves. And, as they have demonstrated, they remain persnickety in their eager defiance of the conventional wisdom.

--Walter Shapiro, 6:35 p.m. ET

COLUMBIA, S.C.-- At Ron Paul headquarters here on Saturday afternoon, volunteers filled nearly every seat (25 downstairs and about the same number upstairs) for some last-minute calls to voters. Chris Kuper, coalition coordinator, told Yahoo News that volunteers are phonebanking and passing out literature, and that some had even offered to sign wave in the rain on primary day.

Yahoo News was not permitted to speak to any volunteers. Paul volunteers in New Hampshire were reportedly asked to sign non-disclosure agreements.

After a full day of flying to whistle-stop events on Friday, plus a late-night rally, Paul held no public events Saturday. He is scheduled to appear Saturday night at a watch party in Columbia.

--Rachel Rose Hartman, 5;00 p.m. ET

ANDERSON, S.C.--Newt Gingrich visited a Chick-fil-A restaurant here and gave the drive-thru window a spin after his stump speech.

You know, just in case that whole president thing doesn't work out ...

--Chris Moody, 4:18 p.m. ET

BLUFFTON, S.C —- In theory, this should be prime Mitt Romney territory, a community (population 12,500) near Hilton Head filled with northern transplants and middle-class retirees. The planned housing developments with their faux white picket fences reflect the same aesthetic as Romney's no-hair-out-of-place good grooming.

Romney ran a solid second to John McCain in the 2008 Republican primary in the four precincts (4A, 4B, 4C and 5) that vote at Bluffton Elementary School. In contrast, Romney finished fourth statewide that year.

Click here for photos of the candidates on the trail in South Carolina

That is why it is ominous for Romney's prospects that he only ran even with Newt Gingrich in my informal lunch-hour exit poll at the elementary school. My tally: Romney 21, Gingrich 21, Rick Santorum 9 and Ron Paul 2, plus (drum roll, maestro) two votes for Stephen Colbert. While conclusions based on interviews from one polling place can be misleading, it is hard to see how Romney (all but heralded as the GOP's de facto nominee just a week ago) can prevail statewide if he cannot tote up hefty margins in places like Bluffton.

The Romney voters whom I talked to praised his "sense of business" (Andrea Cable, a recently married nurse) and calculated that "of the ones left, he's the only one with staying power" (Larry Hughes, a retired marketing consultant from Vermont). But there was little fervor in their voices, with one notable exception. A middle-aged woman talking on her cell phone to her father in Georgia came running over to me, with the phone still next to her ear, to shout, "Newt is immoral, cheating and no good. I voted for Romney because I wanted to stop Gingrich."

There was no discernable pattern to late-deciding voters. Brian Gillespie, who works in aviation, said that he had been leaning toward Gingrich until he saw Santorum interviewed on Fox News this morning and liked what he heard. "But I didn't really make up my mind for Santorum until I pushed the button," he said. Meg Kachelriess, who works in accounting, had been a Herman Cain fan until he dropped out and then was intrigued by Jon Huntsman until he dropped out. Any small chance that she might settle for Romney ended this week, she said. "When I came home and there nine calls on my voice mail," Kachelriess said. "Eight of them were from Romney and many of them were really nasty." So she and her husband Wayne, a financial consultant, voted for Gingrich.

Now about that Stephen Colbert boomlet in Bluffton: Peter Connelly (a retired airline pilot) and his wife Barbara (an ex-teacher) were Huntsman fans, adrift after the former Utah governor left the race last week. So with wry smiles on their faces, they explained that they were following Stephen Colbert's mandate to vote for him on the Herman Cain ballot line.

--Walter Shapiro, 3:15 p.m. ET

COLUMBIA, S.C.--At the Thirsty Fellow pizzeria and pub, customers' rapt attention to the South Carolina/Alabama basketball game was momentarily broken when a commercial break featuring a cadre of presidential campaign ads appeared on the widescreen T.V.

One patron told to the man seated next to her that polls are open until 8 p.m. (it's actually 7 p.m.) and that she planned to vote later tonight.

The man, who made clear he won't be voting, suggested she vote for Herman Cain to support Comedy Central host Stephen Colbert. "I like me some Colbert," he joked.

Imbibing and sports talk continued as the torrential rain continued outside.

--Rachel Rose Hartman, 3:06 p.m. ET

POWDERSVILLE, S.C.--Newt Gingrich secured tiara-crowned nods from two beauty pageant winners Saturday afternoon, just a few hours before the South Carolina polls closed.

Hannah Failoni and Cassidy Durham, who were crowned Miss Powdersville and Miss Powdersville Teen, told Yahoo News they would vote for Gingrich--Durham is not old enough to vote--when he stopped to greet supporters at a voting precinct at Powdersville Middle School.

--Chris Moody, 1:26 p.m. ET

'We don't want this kind of dirty yellow journalism involved in our politics'

LEXINGTON, S.C.--Rich Bolen wasn't supposed to take sides in the South Carolina primary. As the Republican chairman for Lexington County, which includes part of the state capital of Columbia, Bolen cannot offer an official candidate endorsement, according to the rules of the South Carolina Republican Party. But this past Tuesday, he decided to endorse Newt Gingrich anyway.

Click here for photos of the candidates on the trail in South Carolina

At his law office, which now displays a large "Newt" banner along busy U.S. highway 378, Bolen told Yahoo News that John King's intense questioning of Newt Gingrich about the former House speaker's personal life, and Gingrich's response, during Thursday night's CNN debate in Myrtle Beach helped the former House speaker in his state.

"It galvanizes people who are just disgusted with those tactics to come out and vote for him," Bolen said. "They might not have really been that strong for Newt, but they're going to do it just as a protest kind of to say, We don't want this kind of dirty yellow journalism involved in our politics."

--Rachel Rose Hartman, 1:18 p.m. ET

'It's Aporkalypse Now!'

GREENVILLE, S.C.--As the Great Battle of the Ham between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich draws to a close this morning, this reporter declares Gingrich the winner.

As Holly Bailey of Yahoo News describes below, America just barely avoided a primary-morning battle royale between the presidential contenders today at Tommy's Ham House, a must-stop on the South Carolina campaign trail. On Friday night, it was discovered that Romney had scheduled a last-minute visit here at the exact time Gingrich was planning to arrive. Asked about the possible conflict, both campaigns vowed they would not cancel. "We are not changing our schedule," a Romney campaign aide told ABC News Friday night.

The place was packed Saturday morning, and reporters circled the restaurant, aching for a Romney vs. Gingrich confrontation.

"It's Aporkalypse Now!" CNN's Jim Costa quipped before asking, "Are they serving Pork and Bains?"

The excitement vanished when Romney pulled up 45 minutes before the showdown was expected to begin.

"Mitt's here," a Gingrich staffer wrote in an email as soon as the bus pulled up. "He blinked."

I caught up with Romney just before he headed out the door. "Did you arrive early to avoid a showdown with Newt?" I asked. He ignored me and left with about 15 minutes to spare before Gingrich showed up.

When Gingrich strolled in, he boasted.

"I have a question!" Gingrich bellowed, standing above the crowd on a cooler. "Where's Mitt? I thought he was going to stay and maybe we would have a little debate here this morning. So I'm kind of confused."

--Chris Moody, 12:15 p.m. ET

Disappointing scores of reporters who had hoped for a tense showdown, Mitt Romney showed up more than an hour early to Tommy's Ham House this morning, avoiding a run-in with Newt Gingrich, who had been scheduled to appear at the restaurant at the same time.

Dozens of Romney and Gingrich supporters had staked out spots at tables around the room, leaving dozens and dozens of reporters and other onlookers to squeeze in around them. After coming through the door, Romney stood on a chair and shouted to patrons, asking for their vote. As he moved through the room, he set off a near riot.

There was pushing and shoving, and a woman fainted just a few feet away from the candidate. Seeing no way around the mob, Romney, at one point, climbed over a table—stepping right into the breakfast of Agence France Press reporter Olivier Knox.

Outside, Gingrich supporters waved giant "Newt 2012" signs outside Romney's campaign bus as Romney supporters—many of whom told Yahoo News they had driven from Virginia to volunteer on Romney's behalf—shouted.

One woman near Romney waved campaign signs for both the ex-governor and Gingrich. "I can't decide!" she said.

Across the street, supporters of Ron Paul occupied a Hardee's restaurant, eying the circus from afar.

--Holly Bailey, 12:06 p.m. ET

'The only perfect tea party candidates are Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and they're both dead'

GILBERT, S.C.-- Curtis Loftis, one of South Carolina's biggest tea party stars who became state treasurer in 2010, has received some flak from the movement for endorsing Mitt Romney. Many tea partiers consider Romney too moderate to earn their support in 2012. But Loftis told Yahoo News that he sincerely believes Romney is the best candidate running for president, given the options.

"The only perfect tea party candidates are Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, and they're both dead," Loftis said. Asked to explain what about Romney isn't perfect, Loftis said that the former Massachusetts governor isn't as socially conservative as some of his competitors.

"South Carolina is a very conservative state, so it's not hard to be of the left of most of us," said Loftis, a self-described evangelical Christian. "But Mitt Romney is a faithful guy, been married to the same woman for 43 years, a faithful member of his church, a good American."

South Carolina voters will rally around Romney because of his business experience, Loftis said, adding later in our conversation that "second place is last place" in the South Carolina contest.

--Rachel Rose Hartman, 11:55 a.m. ET

GREENVILLE, S.C.—Just as South Carolina has become known for picking every Republican nominee since 1980, no candidate in recent memory has won the nomination without first passing through the doors of Tommy's Ham House, a local institution known for its artery-clogging breakfasts.

George W. Bush sampled the grits here in 2000 and 2004. John McCain held ham breakfast town halls at the restaurant in 2007, when his campaign was left for dead. (Mike Huckabee, the Republican runner-up in '08, even visited here and admitted it posed a major risk to his then very strict diet.)

So it was no surprise that Mitt Romney would want to make an appearance at Tommy's on Saturday—his first this campaign season—but as political reporters quickly noticed after the Romney campaign sent a seemingly innocuous e-mail announcing the candidate's schedule this morning, there was a major caveat to Romney's visit. His schedule had him appearing at the restaurant at the same time as Newt Gingrich. And thus the scandal known around Twitter as "Hamgate" was born.

Gingrich's campaign woke up Tommy Stevenson, the Tommy of Tommy's Ham House, to ask if Romney had let the restaurant know he was coming. A groggy Stevenson, who is up before sunrise most days, said he hadn't, according to the Gingrich campaign—which quickly disseminated the information to reporters, implying that Romney was trying to crash the former House Speaker's event.

A Romney aide called the scheduling a "pure coincidence"—but the campaign did not hide its amusement at the situation. Told that that the Gingrich campaign was putting out word from the restaurant that Romney hadn't alerted them of his stop, Stuart Stevens, the candidate's chief strategist, wore a sly smile. "Oh really?" he said, innocently.

Reporters began jokingly coining the run-in as the "Ham House Showdown," while CNN noted that Romney campaign had denied planning a "ham-bush."

The Gingrich advance team went into action. Shortly before 7 a.m., hours before either candidate was expected to be on the scene, aides covered virtually every stretch of grass surrounding the restaurant with "Newt 2012" yard signs. Two enormous Gingrich placards were placed at the dueling entrances of the site, while aides papered the glass door with "Newt" signs—leaving virtually no room for Romney signs.

By 7:30 a.m., a woman was out front selling Gingrich campaign buttons. "No Romney," she admitted, sadly. By 8:30 a.m., the parking lot was full, with one satellite truck and several news vans, and crews were setting up live shots. Behind them were dozens and dozens of cars, each branded with bumper stickers touting Gingrich or Romney.

Inside, the restaurant was doing brisk business. A hostess said the restaurant called in extra hands to deal with the looming political storm. "We hope they're ready to eat," she said.

Now the big unknown is whether the candidates will actually cross paths. According to his schedule, Gingrich is scheduled to arrive at Tommy's at 10:45 a.m. ET—though the former speaker is known to run late to his events much of the time. Romney, meanwhile, is scheduled to show up on site around 11:00 a.m.—and he is often very punctual.

If the news media is to be believed, it could be the most exciting political moment of the day, aside from the actual primary results. Or it might not be. At least we'll always have the memory of all these pork puns.

--Holly Bailey, 9:02 a.m. ET

Read more coverage of the 2012 South Carolina primary at Yahoo News.

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