Mitt Romney (left) and Newt Gingrich, who were running neck and neck in the polls, criss-crossed the state today in a last-minute appeal for votes. All four candidates planned to be in South Carolina tonight to await the results.

AP Photos

Voter turnout in today's GOP presidential preference primary was mixed across the state, with counties that saw a heavier Republican turnout four years ago also reporting heavier voting today, according to the State Election Commission.

For instance, Allendale, Dillon and Jasper counties reported light turnout, while it was busier at the polls in Greenville, Georgetown and Pickens counties.

Commission director Marci Andino said a stormy day in some parts of the state was not enough to keep voters away.

A 60-year-old Hispanic-American man initially wasn’t allowed to vote this afternoon in North Charleston after a precinct manager demanded that he print his name on the election roll.

Armando Gonzalez, an electrician who was born in Texas, waited two hours at Goodwin Elementary School on Dorchester Road until the election commission’s executive director told the precinct manager to allow Gonzalez to vote.

Gonzalez, who said he was challenged the same way after voting in November, still was upset after being told he could vote.

“If it happens to me, I want to know if it’s going to happen to other Hispanic people,” he said.

When Gonzalez entered the school gym to vote, he presented his voter registration card and signed his name. That’s all that is required, said Joseph Debney, executive director of the Charleston County Board of Elections and Voter Registration.

But he also was asked to print his name, and when he refused, he wasn’t allowed to vote. He called the county election office and North Charleston police.

Police arrived and spoke with Gonzalez and a poll official, who also talked with Debney by phone. The police officers soon left.

Debney speculated there could have been some confusion regarding the state’s proposed Voter ID law, which would have required a photo ID but was blocked last month by the U.S. Justice Department. He had heard of no similar incidents today.

“Everything is good,” precinct manager Barbara Burroughs said.

“I’ve been a citizen of the United States for 60 years,” Gonzalez said, “but now they (elections officials) don’t treat me like that.”

Dorchester County's Josh Dickard said the voting "was about the same as last time" there was a presidential primary in South Carolina. Dickard, executive director of Elections and Voter Registration, said the voting was steady, and guessed the turnout to be about 21 percent of eligible voters.

"No precincts have been particularly crowded here," he said.

Wanda Farley said Berkeley County was having a typical election day.

"Just the ordinary problems ... some at the wrong precincts or who thought they had registered but hadn't. But no more than normal," the director of elections said.

"We've had a steady trickling all day," she said. But the voting has been quick: "I think you could do it in as little as 20 seconds" once you get up there.

Weather may have affected turnout in the Upstate, where it rained much of the day, and in parts of the Midlands, which also saw showers. The National Weather Service issued a tornado watch for 14 counties from Aiken to Bamberg and west to Newberry, Richland and Orangeburg. It expires at 8 p.m.

The wait to vote at Greater Goodwill AME Church in Mount Pleasant was 50 minutes between 1 and 2 p.m. and the line was not getting any shorter. There was one computer to check in voters at the three precincts there - Mount Pleasant 31, 32 and 34. The lines were expected to get longer throughout the day, a poll worker said.

About an hour earlier on Daniel Island, there were reports of at least 100 people in line at Daniel Island School.

It was taking about 25 minutes to vote there, according to a poll worker.

Some other precincts reported that turnout was light. In Charleston's Precinct 7 at Gaillard Auditorium, only 68 people had cast ballots by noon.

Before the polls opened at 7 a.m., there were 20 people in line outside the Mount Pleasant Municipal Complex, where three precincts were voting.

By 9:30 a.m., 130 people had voted there, according to a poll worker.

Among the early voters was Carmel Dodds of Mount Pleasant, who said she had been undecided until this morning.

She voted for Rick Santorum, she said, because she feels he had the most consistent conservative message.

Another Mount Pleasant resident, Ken Johnson, said he voted for Mitt Romney because he thinks Romney has the best handle on the issues and he doesn't think Newt Gingrich can win.

But Keith Purdy of Mount Pleasant said he voted for Gingrich because "he's the smartest guy on the stage."

Over on James Island, Patty and Phil Gordon said they voted for Ron Paul.

"He is the only candidate who is the path to peace," Phil Gordon said.

Andy and Bettye Nelson of Summerville didn't talk with each other about who they were going to vote for before they cast their ballots at the Sangaree 3 precinct this morning, but they found out afterward they had both voted for Santorum.

"I guess because of his principles," Bettye Nelson said.

Both remember Gingrich from as far back as the Reagan years but that was a long time ago, they said. She questioned the decision-making of "any man who can't have a monogamous relationship for the duration of his life."

The turnout at North Charleston High School was sparse, in stark contrast to the turnout in Mount Pleasant, James Island and other areas.

By 10:45 a.m., only 35 people, or 5.4 percent of the registered voters, had voted at North Charleston High School, a poll worker said.

Only one minor problem has been reported locally.

The doors were locked this morning when poll workers arrived to prepare for the 7 a.m. opening at the James Island 3 precinct at Westchester Playground.

Poll managers allowed voters to use emergency paper ballots until someone arrived to unlock the building about 7:30 a.m. Three people used those ballots, said Patrick Lee, deputy director of the county's Board of Elections and Voter Registration.

Gingrich continued to build momentum in the polls. A new survey released today has him leading the primary pack at 40 percent and widening his lead over Romney, who was at 26 percent.

Paul was third at 18 percent and Santorum was at 13 percent in the American Research Group survey conducted Thursday and Friday. Gingrich has gained 7 percentage points since the group's previous survey of likely GOP primary voters Tuesday and Wednesday. Romney, the former front-runner, has lost 6 percentage points since that poll.

Since 1980, every candidate who has won South Carolina's Republican primary has gone on to capture the GOP presidential nomination.

That streak is on the line today as voters choose among the four candidates still in the hunt.

Today's result will propel one of them into the Jan. 31 Florida primary with fresh confidence, new financial support and a positive story about where his campaign stands.

Before the first vote is cast at 7 a.m., the GOP field already has lost more candidates than it has kept. Nine names will appear on South Carolina's ballots, but only four have active campaigns. After the polls close at 7 this evening, the field could dwindle again.

Observers expect a close contest between Newt Gingrich, who has surged after two debate performances, and Mitt Romney, who won big in New Hampshire.

But Ron Paul and Rick Santorum hope to surpass expectations and get a momentum injection going forward.

There are several factors at play, including differences between voters along the coast, in the Midlands and in the Upstate, as well as a possible divide in who men and women will support.

There's also the disenchantment many voters feel for government in general. Others likely will cast ballots based on a candidate's views on social issues or the economy.

It's unclear how many of the state's 2,722,344 voters will turn out. The campaign barraged homes with TV ads and robocalls, including some nasty ones in a state long known for its rough-and-tumble politics.

Several of South Carolina's most prominent Republicans, including Sens. Jim DeMint and Lindsey Graham and Rep. Tim Scott, also have remained on the fence.

The weather is expected to cooperate, sort of. A cold front is forecast to push through the state. Cooler temperatures and rain will arrive in the Upstate this morning but won't get to the Lowcountry until around the time the polls close.

Any registered South Carolina voter can cast a ballot, because voters here don't register by party. Anyone voting today won't be eligible to become a delegate in the upcoming state and national Democratic conventions.

The turnout was 445,499 -- or about 20 percent --in the 2008 GOP primary, when John McCain eked out a 33-30 win over Mike Huckabee. Romney placed fourth, Paul fifth. The state's record turnout of 573,101 came in 2000, when George W. Bush beat McCain.

Whoever wins the state today will receive 11 delegates plus two more for every one of the state's congressional districts in which they finish first. South Carolina has 25 delegates -- or 1.1 percent of the 2,286 that will convene in Tampa this summer.

The state was penalized half its delegates for setting its primary before Feb. 1, but party leaders expect to win them back before the convention.

But the delegates aren't as important as the positive headlines and momentum the winner here will get. Few expect the GOP contest to become a fight for delegates, as President Barack Obama's primary battle against Hillary Clinton was.

Today also is expected to mark the end of South Carolina's turn on the national stage in the 2012 election. No one expects this Republican-friendly state to be in play during this fall's general election, though Obama and the Democrats are eyeing North Carolina and will hold their convention in Charlotte.

All four GOP candidates passed through the Lowcountry at least once Friday as they laid rubber on South Carolina's tarmacs and interstates, scrambling to make one last good impression and to shake one last hand.

During a stop at Atlantic Aviation, Paul urged his supporters to stay optimistic about the primary, adding that the movement will continue -- a movement that has attracted many young voters.

"The growth of the freedom movement has been exponential," he said. "If we become careless with the Constitution, careless with the rule of law, we will have little left."

Romney tried to regain momentum after less-than-impressive debate performances by telling a large crowd in North Charleston that he wants to return America to "the shining city on a hill Ronald Reagan spoke of."

He mentioned none of the other candidates in today's primary, focusing only on Obama.

Gingrich toured the Medical University of South Carolina's Children's Hospital with a swarm of media in tow, and later wrapped up the day with a town hall meeting for veterans aboard the aircraft carrier Yorktown in Mount Pleasant.

He noted a recent poll that showed him in the lead, but was cautious. "The poll doesn't count if the votes don't show up."

Santorum spoke at the Citadel Patriot Dinner Friday night, where he used the story of Goldilocks and the three bears. He said Romney and Gingrich represent the worst choices on the ballot; one timid, one a little reckless.

Republicans are "not looking to the person with the most money, they are looking for the person who can help them make the most money," he said.

Today

Rick Santorum: 960 Amicks Ferry Road, Chapin, 11:30 a.m.; Morningside Baptist Church polling station, Greenville, 1:30 p.m.; The Citadel's Buyer Hall (second floor of Mark Clark Hall), 6:45 p.m.

Ron Paul: 8 p.m., Jillian's in Columbia.

Newt Gingrich: Grapevine Restaurant, Spartanburg, 8 a.m.; Tommy's Country Ham House, Greenville, 10:45 a.m.; Powdersville Middle School, Powdersville, 12:30 p.m.; Chick-fil-A, 3725 Clemson Blvd., Anderson, 3:30 p.m.; Whiteford's Restaurant, Laurens, 5:45 p.m.; Hilton Columbia Center Hotel, Columbia, 8 p.m.

Mitt Romney: Greenville headquarters, 17 College St., 8:45 a.m.; Tommy's Country Ham House, Greenville, 10:45 a.m.; South Carolina State Fair Grounds, 7:45 p.m.

Public Policy Polling

Gingrich 35%

Romney 29%

Santorum 15%

Paul 15%

Undecided 5%

NOTE: Survey of 836 likely GOP voters Wednesday and Thursday. Margin of error plus or minus 3.4 percentage points.

Clemson University poll

Gingrich 32%

Romney 26%

Paul 11%

Santorum 9%

NOTE: Survey of 429 likely GOP voters Wednesday and Thursday. Margin of error plus or minus 4.73 percentage points.

NBC/Marist

Romney 34%

Gingrich 24%

Paul 16%

Santorum 14%

Perry 4%

Undecided 8%

None of the above 1%

NOTE: Survey of 684 likely GOP voters Monday and Tuesday. Margin of error plus or minus 3.8 percentage points.

Compare that with this poll taken Sunday, before the debates in Myrtle Beach and North Charleston

Monmouth University Poll

Romney 33%

Gingrich 22%

Santorum 14%

Paul 12%

Rick Perry 6%

Jon Huntsman 4%

Undecided 7%

None of the above 2%

NOTE: Survey of 963 likely GOP voters from Jan. 12 to Sunday. Margin of error plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.

Where do they go from here?

Today: South Carolina primary, 25 delegates

Jan. 31: Florida primary, 50 delegates

Feb. 4: Nevada caucus, 28 delegates

Problems at the polls?

Berkeley County: 719-4056 (Moncks Corner), 723-3800 Ext. 4056 (Goose Creek/Hanahan), 567-3142 Ext. 4056 (St. Stephen)

Charleston County: 744-8683

Dorchester County: 563-0132

In St. George, call: 563-0071

In Summerville, call: 832-0071

The Department of Justice has set up a toll-free number to report problems: (1-800) 253-3931

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771 or on Twitter @robertfbehre. Reach Schuyler Kropf at 937-5551 or on Twitter @skropf47