Voters went to the polls Saturday knowing that even though South Carolina comprises only about 1.5 percent of the nation's population, the state's residents could prove to be pivotal in the 2012 Republican Party nomination for president of the United States.

Indeed, recent history provides ample evidence of the importance of the South Carolina primary, at least on the Republican side: The South Carolina primary winner has won the GOP's nomination in every presidential nomination cycle since 1980. South Carolina is the third primary on the GOP calendar and the first in the South; the Florida primary is next on Jan. 31.

If former House Speaker Newt Gingrich performs well -- by most consensuses, this means that he wins the primary by five percentage points or more -- a plausible argument could be made that he has enough support within the party, along with his well-honed communication skills, to make this a two-candidate race.

On the other hand, if Mitt Romney wins in South Carolina, his operatives can reasonably argue that he should rightfully be the nominee; after all, he won in New Hampshire, had a strong showing in Iowa, and proved that he could win right-leaning voters in South Carolina, a conservative state that would seem to be difficult for the more moderate Romney to do well in. South Carolina's polls close at 7 p.m. EST.

Voter Turnout Up From 2008 Levels

The slight rain that fell over much of the state as primary voting began Saturday morning, and the line of heavier thunderstorms rolling through the state's northwest and upstate regions, did not decrease turnout, at least by mid-day: Turnout by noon in the Midlands was similar or above that of the 2008 Republican primary, thestate.com reported Saturday.

By 11:30 a.m. EST 400 people had voted at Polo Road Precinct in Richland County, a pace that may exceed the 2008 total for the location, when a total of 489 people voted in that primary voting location.

Turnout was similar at nearby Caughman Road Elementary School, where 191 people had voted by 10:15 a.m. EST; in 2008, 236 voted for the entire primary.

Meanwhile, in Lexington County's Saluda River Baptist voting station, the turnout was not as high, with 265 votes cast as of 11 a.m. EST; in 2008, 385 total votes were cast during that entire day.

Latest South Carolina Poll Indicates Gingrich Substantially Ahead

The latest poll by the American Research Group (ARG) showed  Gingrich with a 14-percentage point lead, 40 percent to Romney's 26 percent, and, as is standard fare in U.S. national-level campaigns, each campaign sought to put the best possible interpretation or spin on what the large gap means.

Richard Quinn, a longtime South Carolina GOP strategist who worked for Jon Huntsman, but who this week signed on to advise Gingrich, predicted that Gingrich will register between [a] 4- and 6-point plurality win in the primary, CNN.com reported Satuday.

Meanwhile, the Romney campaign was in lowering expectations mode. It was been a hard week, Curtis Loftis, a leading Romney surrogate said Friday. Nobody is going to deny that.  

This past week Romney has had to do damage control after revealing that his effective tax rate, after deductions, is probably closer to 15 percent -- a rate that, if confirmed by his tax forms, would mean that Romney's tax rate for a likely million-dollar-plus annual income is substantially below the income tax rate most middle-income adults pay.

Even so, the Gingrich campaign has had its share of potentially damaging news to deal with, as well. Earlier this week, in an interview with ABC News, Gingrich's ex-wife alleged that he had asked her for an open marriage while he was already dating his current wife, Calista. Gingrich has admitted other, past personal failings but said his 2012 campaign in part is a story of redemption; he has denied his former wife's accusation.

--