By Steve Holland
GREENVILLE, South Carolina (Reuters) - A Ham House Showdown between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich was averted Saturday, but not without them aiming a few shots at each other.
Both Republican presidential candidates had arranged campaign events for the same time in the same place - Tommy's Country Ham House - the day of the South Carolina primary vote.
But Romney arrived 45 minutes earlier than scheduled at the Greenville restaurant and avoided a face-to-face Election Day encounter with Gingrich, whose bus rolled up to the eatery just after Romney's left.
"I have a question. Where's Mitt?" Gingrich said of the former Massachusetts governor, telling the crowd, "I don't think they have New England clam chowder on the menu."
A Gingrich aide declared of Romney's early arrival: "They blinked."
But a Romney aide said Romney's previous event ended sooner than expected and he wanted to go early to Tommy's Country Ham House, a popular destination for political candidates who can talk up voters over breakfasts of ham, eggs, grits and the like.
"We see Newt all the time. We don't get to see the voters of South Carolina every day," the aide said.
Supporters of each candidate waved signs and shouted as Romney arrived early. It was part of the frenzy of campaigning as South Carolina voted in its primary election with Gingrich gunning for an upset over Romney.
The crowd was so thick that some people were almost knocked over by the surge of news media surrounding Romney and pushing its way through people wanting to see the candidate.
Romney stood on a chair to speak and, referring to Gingrich, asked whether "we need a Washington insider to run Washington."
"I'm the only guy's who's spent his life in the real world," Romney said.
Romney could not make his way through the masses, so he climbed onto a table and walked over it to get to voters on another side of the restaurant.
He walked through the restaurant shaking hands, signing campaign posters and even a baseball.
Mike Diruscio was at a table with a Romney poster on it. A Romney supporter?
"Not necessarily," he said. "I don't know yet ... I'm leaning toward Gingrich, because he's got the spunk, he's got the fire."
Sitting at a table was Jeanne Pyle. Who did she come to see?
"We came here for breakfast, but we haven't been served yet," she said.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)