The South Carolina primary election 2012 is underway on Saturday, and a new poll released as residents cast ballots shows Newt Gingrich surging past Mitt Romney.

The American Research Group poll was conducted Thursday and Friday and released on Saturday, showing Gingrich leading Romney by a 40 percent to 26 percent margin. The American Research Group released a poll on Thursday showing Gingrich up 33 percent to 32 percent, so it appears Gingrich made a strong surge just before polls opened Saturday at 7 a.m.

South Carolina voters have until 7 p.m. this evening to cast ballots. Party affiliation is not required, and voter turnout appears strong as some Democrats are even venturing to the polls without a race to vote in to make an impact, according to a media report.

The South Carolina primary is the third this election year and the first in the South. It is viewed as a pivotal play for the winner since every winner of the South Carolina primary since 1980 has gone on to claim the Republican presidential nomination.

Romney's camp was downplaying the latest poll results on Saturday, however.

It's tight, it's real tight, said one Romney adviser who did not want to be quoted discussing internal poll numbers, according to CNN.

CNN also reported that a top Gingrich strategist in South Carolina was predicting victory in the primary on Saturday. The news agency quoted Richard Quinn, a longtime South Carolina GOP strategist who worked for Jon Huntsman but signed on to advise Gingrich this week, as saying the former House speaker will walk away with 'between a 4- and 6-point plurality win' in the primary.

The State newspaper of Columbia South Carolina reported Saturday that a potential political storm was avoided this morning after front-runners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney were both scheduled to arrive at Tommy's Country Ham House in Greenville at 10:45 a.m.

Romney, however, showed up an hour early to vote. The State reported that Romney sounded like he expected to lose the primary.

We'd like to win here, of course, but we have a long way to go, he reportedly told a gathered crowd. So come join us in Florida, then in Nevada, Michigan, Colorado.

Romney reportedly spent 15 minutes at the ham house, and left before Gingrich arrived.

I was hoping for a debate, Gingrich said, aware that Romney had recently been there. Where's Mitt?