6:25pm (Exit Poll data statistics)

As the polls draw to a close tonight at 7pm, we look first to the exit poll data to get a bit of a feel for how the candidates are lining up. Although it is still to early to make any sort of proclamation, the exit polling data suggests that Gingrich had a good day in South Carolina.

We were all wondering whether Gingrich’s late surge would carry enough weight to translate into votes in the booth. The data suggests that it will, as just over half of all voters in today’s primary considered themselves “late deciders.” Additionally, about two-thirds of voters found that the candidates’ performance in the debates played an important factor in their decision, another advantage to Gingrich.

A lot of Evangelicals showed up to vote today, comprising nearly two-thirds of primary goers. This likely will help Santorum in his hunt for third place, but according to a short breakdown of the numbers conducted by Fox News, Gingrich fared better than expected among Evangelical voters.

Interesting exit poll data, but we won’t have the final answer of who is to win the usually prophetic primary of South Carolina for a few hours. The polls officially close in about 35 minutes and then the tallying begins.

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5:08pm (In South Carolina, mixing pork and politics doesn’t stop at bill writing)

It appears a potential crisis was averted at Tommy’s Ham House today. The restaurant, a popular spot for candidates to reach out to South Carolina voters, was booked by both the Romney and Gingrich campaigns on the same day, at the same time. As supporters of both candidates filled the Ham House holding their respective campaign signs, it looked as though the two candidates were headed for a collision course at the restaurant.

The highly hyped run-in between the top two candidates in the state never materialized however, as Mitt Romney ultimately showed up roughly 45 minutes early to give his remarks. His bus was out and on the road 20 minutes before Gingrich’s bus pulled up. When Newt walked in, he jokingly remarked, “Where’s Mitt? I thought he was gonna stay and maybe we’d have a little debate here this morning.”

The Romney campaign asserts his early arrival was merely a consequence of being ahead of schedule. Others, however, opine that in the staring contest leading up to the ill-fated Ham House run-in, Romney blinked.

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2:55pm

For Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, it appears to be a battle for third. Whatever the outcome between them, Santorum has signaled that he intends to be out on the campaign trail in Florida next week. It will be interesting to see if this does play out because I’m not sure that Santorum has the money or the infrastructure to carry on a very successful campaign in Florida. Only time will tell.

Additionally, I don’t see any reason for Ron Paul to bow out because of a third or fourth place finish in South Carolina. Paul has the funds and stable support base to stay in the race for a lengthy period of time if he so chooses. However, Paul’s results in South Carolina will be illustrative of his campaign’s Achilles heel. Although he has a strong and consistent base, he is going to have a tough time broadening that base to reach the average Republican voter.

In other news, the race for the top spot in South Carolina saw Gingrich and Romney trading jabs at each other in a last ditch effort to try and rally some of the remaining undecided voters over to their respective camps. Although the most recent polls show Gingrich has a substantial lead in the state, its no time for him to get comfortable. The race tonight will very likely go down to the wire.

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1:00pm

Its no secret, the Republican field has gotten interesting over the past week. Last Saturday, we still had 6 candidates vying for the nomination but the field has rapidly been winnowed down to 4, each of whom have more riding on this primary than any leading up to it. Today promises to be a contest worth watching very closely, as a victory here will have huge ramifications in the race for the Republican nomination.

As far as the early contests go, South Carolina is far and away the most important. A win in Iowa is good, but it serves mostly to add media attention to your campaign. A win in New Hampshire is equally impressive, but its not exactly a microcosm of the Republican electorate. I am a firm believer, insofar as the Republican party goes, that South Carolina picks Presidents. Since 1980, no Republican has secured the nomination without first securing victory in South Carolina’s primary. Building off my post from last week on the candidates and South Carolina, let’s review a few of the shifts in the field that took place over the last week.

As was to be expected, Jon Huntsman dropped out of the race early this week and put his support behind Mitt Romney, declaring him the candidate “best equipped to defeat Barack Obama.” Huntsman’s endorsement, which may have carried more weight had he done it leading up to the New Hampshire primary, appears to have fallen on deaf ears in South Carolina where the moderate voting bloc is far less substantial.  In addition to Huntsman, Governor Rick Perry also has bowed out of the race, throwing his full support behind Newt Gingrich. While neither Hunstman nor Perry carried a substantial amount of votes in South Carolina, Perry’s adamant and forceful endorsement of Gingrich may prove to make the difference when the votes are tallied. In what was undoubtedly Perry’s best speech, he came out in full support of Gingrich calling him “a conservative visionary who can transform our country.” Additionally, Perry alluded to an issue that would eventually become a national headline regarding Newt’s previous marriage. Drawing on his belief in offering forgiveness to those who seek it, Perry said of Gingrich, “We’ve had our differences, which campaigns will inevitably have, and Newt is not perfect, but who among us is?”

Its not clear just how much weight Perry’s endorsement of Gingrich will carry, but when the race is as tight as it is, every vote counts and the glowing recommendation Newt received from Perry certainly won’t hurt him. Additionally, recent polls from Clemson University and Public Policy Polling indicate that Newt has opened up a sizable lead in South Carolina due in large part to a combination of stellar debate performances, superior campaign organization in the state, and his more than adequate handling of his ex-wife Marianne’s interview with ABC News that was aired the other night.

Ultimately, we all must wait until the votes are tallied, but signs are becoming more and more apparent that an upset is looming in South Carolina. As the day progresses, I’ll continue updating periodically and also be taking a look at where Ron Paul and Rick Santorum stand.