Palmetto State primary day underway

COLUMBIA (WACH/AP) -- Polls across South Carolina opened at 7 a.m. Saturday for the 2012 'First in the South' Republican Presidential Primary.

An overcast primary day has seen rain sweep across the state and a tornado warning has been issued for parts of the Midlands until 8 p.m., an hour after the polls close.

County election commissions across the state have reported varying degrees of turnout throughout the day with extremely light turnout in some areas and heavy turnout in others.

"The fact that the citizens of South Carolina are turning out to vote in what has been a stormy day in many parts of the state is a testament to their dedication to making their voices heard by casting their ballots," said Marci Andino, Executive Director of the S.C. State Election Commission. "We appreciate the preparation, enthusiasm and dedication of voters who went to the polls and voted today, and encourage those who have not yet voted to do so by 7 p.m. today."

For Newt Gingrich, it all comes down to South Carolina. After disappointing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire, the former House speaker has hit his stride before the nation's first Southern primary, rising in polls as he has rallied conservatives behind him as the most viable alternative to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Mitt Romney is heading into primary day conceding that he'll win some and lose some. Romney on Friday acknowledged the contest here is "neck-and-neck" and said he expects to lose "some primaries" to rival Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker.

With the race in South Carolina here seemingly between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, Republican hopeful Rick Santorum is bracing for a setback and looking ahead to the next contest. That's the Florida primary.

Santorum plans to visit polling locations and attend an evening rally in Charleston on Saturday before his campaign moves south.

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul is also looking past the South Carolina primary with plans to make the most of a handful of caucus states that could be more receptive to his libertarian message.

South Carolina Republicans established their presidential primary more than three decades ago as way to raise the state's national political profile. They succeeded beyond their imagination.

Ever since 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the first South Carolina Republican primary, every GOP candidate who has won in this Southern state of fewer than 5 million people has gone on to win the Republican presidential nomination. State party officials are fond of saying the road to the White House passes straight through South Carolina.

South Carolina is a different battleground from the corn fields of Iowa and predominantly white New Hampshire. The state is poorer, more conservative and has a population that is 28 percent black.

Voters don't register by parties so Democrats and independents enter the mix in the primary.

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(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)