Voters in New Hampshire are casting their ballots Tuesday in the first Republican presidential primary, with front-runner Mitt Romney looking to secure a substantial early win in the protracted contest to determine U.S. President Barack Obama's opponent later this year.
Just after midnight under the heat and glare of television cameras, residents in the small communities of Dixville Notch and Hart's Location continued a long tradition of being the first to cast their ballots, giving Romney an early, but minuscule initial lead.
Romney tied Jon Huntsman with two votes in Dixville Notch, while edging out Ron Paul in Hart's Location 5-4, the New Hampshire Union Leader reported.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor who ran unsuccessfully for the 2008 Republican candidacy, has emphasized his successful career in the top levels of the private sector as proof he is the best candidate to oversee the U.S. economic recovery.
He has spent most of his time in New Hampshire targeting Obama over his performance on the economy, accusing the president of hindering the country's recovery from the recession and creating uncertainty for businesses with his policies.
"Uncertainty kills small business," Romney told a Nashua Chamber of Commerce audience on Monday in his final day of campaigning.
"Sometimes I don't think [Obama] likes you very much. I love you. I love what you do."
But Romney also triggered controversy on Monday with an unscripted remark about how he liked "being able to fire people who provide services to me."
The candidate later said the comment was taken out of context, insisting he meant only that Americans should able to get rid of health-insurance providers who don't provide services they need.
But it offered an opening for opponents like Huntsman, who suggested Romney showed he was "slightly out of touch" with the hard economic reality ordinary Americans currently face.
Can Huntsman surprise? Huntsman, a former Utah governor who also served as the U.S. ambassador to China under Obama, has blitzed New Hampshire for months and is banking on a solid showing in the race to keep his campaign alive. He vowed he would exceed expectations in the state after his strong debate performance over the weekend.
"Every stop along the way I heard the same thing: 'Something is happening out there,'" Huntsman said to a large crowd of supporters Monday. "I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow night, but I do know this: we're going to surprise a whole lot of people."
Outside a Huntsman appearance at a Nashua bakery, Bill McDermott, a registered independent from nearby Hudson, told CBC News it was "quite possible" he'd vote for the candidate after reading about him and seeing his debate performances.
"I think his position on this issues is more moderate than the others, and there just seems to be something more genuine about him," said McDermott, 73, a retired electronic components sales representative who added he has voted for Republicans and Democrats in the past.
Bob St. Jean, from Hooksett, said he was initially considering voting for Romney, but was changing his vote to Huntsman because he didn't like how Romney challenged his service as ambassador to China under a Democratic administration.
"It's an honour to serve as an ambassador, and I just thought the attack was unwarranted," St. Jean told CBC News.
The latest polls emerging from the state suggested Huntsman had pulled even with Texas congressman Ron Paul, who said in a email to supporters on Monday that a "strong finish in New Hampshire will prove that the momentum is with my campaign."
How big does Romney need to win New Hampshire? Romney is running in his own backyard and is almost a lock to win on Tuesday. It will just be a case of pundits trying to hype a contest that has few doubts, insisting he needs to run up the score to roll into the next phase of the primary process.
The most recent polls on Monday suggested Romney's support was dipping below the 40 per cent he garnered in earlier voter surveys. A significant double-digit win is expected to give his campaign momentum heading into the Jan. 21 South Carolina primary, where southern candidates like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry have already been pouring in resources.
Perry, a fifth-place finisher in Iowa who all but abandoned New Hampshire after Sunday's debate, has been campaigning in South Carolina while his opponents made their final pitches here.
Who wins the real race … for second place? Paul, Huntsman, Gingrich and Santorum, who surprised many when he came just eight votes behind Romney in last week's Iowa caucuses, could all claim a significant victory and revive their campaigns with a second-place finish.
Gingrich, once considered Romney's main challenger, has struggled since being the target of negative ads paid for by Romney backers. The former House Speaker's campaign released an ad Monday labelling Romney "Mitt the Massachusetts Moderate" and accusing the former governor of raising taxes by $700 million during his tenure in charge of the neighbouring state known for its Democratic support.
Paul, an outspoken libertarian who has called for legalizing drugs and pulling U.S. troops from foreign bases to help slash the soaring federal deficit, has a highly visible and vocal grassroots-based volunteer campaign in New Hampshire that has made its presence felt at opponents' events.
"Ron Paul's been fighting for liberty for a long time," Paul volunteer John Marion told CBC News on Monday outside a Huntsman stop. "He represents American principles of individual rights [and] knows the role of government is to protect that."
Is Romney wounded? Romney has been taking heat in recent days from his rivals over his claimed status as a jobs creator amid reports the private equity investment firm he founded, Bain Capital, oversaw a series of worker layoffs at companies it controlled. The firing comment came at a bad time.
He's also been criticized for being too moderate or too inconsistent to lead a conservative party already struggling with its identity after a right-wing Tea Party insurrection in 2010.
"Romney's got no backbone," said Edgar Breisch, an New Hampshire independent who was undecided between backing Santorum or Huntsman in Tuesday's vote. "Unfortunately, he's going to win because he's got all the money."
Can the party unite around an eventual winner who can beat Obama? The old saying that Republicans fall in line and leave falling in love to the Democrats could prove just that: old. But New Hampshire's only the first primary, and the convention isn't until August, leaving plenty of time for reconciliation, deals and a vice-presidential candidate that could heal any divide.