GREENVILLE, SC –- The much anticipated Ham House showdown that started cooking yesterday never came off the back burner today -- Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich did not cross paths at the popular Palmetto State campaign venue.
“Where's Mitt?” Gingrich asked the crowd after Romney left the restaurant. “I thought he was gonna stay and maybe we'd have a little debate this morning. So I'm kind of confused."
Both the Romney and Gingrich campaigns released schedules late Friday night announcing they would be at Tommy’s Country Ham House at 10:45 am today. Neither campaign would back down and cancel the event, but Romney ended up arriving this morning just before 10:00 am -- 45 minutes earlier then planned.
“We see Newt all the time,” a Romney campaign aide said. “We don’t get to see the voters of South Carolina every day.”
The former Massachusetts governor only took one small jab at Gingrich during his brief remarks.
“If we think we need a Washington insider to run Washington, there are a lot of people to choose from. But I’m the only guy whose spent his life in the real world; I’m going to fight to put America back to work,” he said.
Much of the restaurant never heard Romney's message at all. Standing on a chair, Romney shouted towards the back, but didn't use the microphone that had been set up near him.
“They have a microphone, but I didn’t pay for it,” Romney told the crowd as many were yelling that they couldn’t hear him. The sound system was provided by the Gingrich campaign.
While Romney worked the restaurant, volunteers from his campaign -- including more than 70 college students bussed in from Virginia -- circled the restaurant, chanting and generally raising the energy level well beyond that of your standard saturday brunch.
The former speaker arrived a mere 20 minutes after Romney departed, and he addressed the crowd with a microphone flanked by signs for both him and the governor.
"And let me say to our friends who are holding up Romney signs, we're glad you're a part of the American system; we're glad you have the right in this to express yourself in this country' and we hope in the very near future, you'll see the light and pick up a Gingrich sign,” he said said.
Gingrich, who told NBC News the event was “wild,” shook hands for voters just as Romney did. But the two candidates visited opposite sides of the ham house.
One man stood near the kitchen with a hat on that had a piece of paper on the front reading “UNDECIDED.” Gingrich turned to the man and said, “Why don’t you write Newt?”
In turn, the man handed the hat to Gingrich and the Speaker crossed out “UNDECIDED” and wrote “NEWT.”
“Now he is for me,” Gingrich said with a smile to the cameras as he held up the hat. “One vote at a time.”
Romney and Gingrich are running neck-and-neck in many polls in South Carolina, and this event today proved it -– a split between voters and even some family members.
Both Mary Louise Batson and her stepdaughter sat in a booth to listen to the two presidential contenders each supporting a different candidate. Mary held up a Newt 2012 sign, while Joanie displayed a Romney sign. The two were planning on going to vote just after “hamgate” wrapped up.
Polls in South Carolina close at 7:00 pm ET.