MANCHESTER, N.H. — With Mitt Romney the overwhelming favorite, his five Republican opponents hoped to chip away at his dominance in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary and finish well enough to challenge him again in South Carolina and Florida.
A narrower than expected win for Romney in the nation’s first presidential primary — or a surprisingly strong finish from one of his rivals — could weaken the front-runner. Either would play as more evidence that Republicans still have doubts about Romney, who barely squeezed out a win in the Iowa caucuses.
Those doubts were on display in the first ballots cast in the primary, in tiny Dixville Notch, the New Hampshire village that traditionally votes at midnight. Romney and Jon Huntsman each received two of the six votes; Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul received one vote apiece.
“Dixville Notch might be a harbinger in this race,” said Huntsman, a former Utah governor who skipped Iowa to pin his hopes on a decent showing in New Hampshire.
The rest of New Hampshire voters go to the polls throughout the day after receiving months of attention from the Republican candidates and witnessing an increasingly sharp tone in the struggle for the nomination.
Rick Santorum, who rocketed to prominence with a virtual tie with Romney in Iowa, said there wasn’t time enough to capitalize on that momentum before New Hampshire’s primary and that he would be content to pull a double-digit percentage of the votes.
There are lots of contests still to come, Santorum said, speaking to reporters between shaking voters’ hands at a Manchester polling place. “There’s going to be lots of opportunities to rise and fall,” he said.
With the quirky, libertarian-leaning Rep. Ron Paul of Texas running a strong second to Romney in New Hampshire polls for much of the year, third place may become a highly coveted spot for the rest of the field hoping to prove they can keep up with Romney.
Romney suffered an ill-timed, foot-in-mouth moment the day before the voting — declaring he liked being able to fire people — and his rivals were quick to pounce. But some pulled back from their attacks Tuesday, noting that Romney’s clumsy quote actually referred to individuals ditching their health insurance company for better coverage elsewhere. “I’m not going to play gotcha politics,” Santorum said.
Romney’s firing comment on Monday helped former House Speaker Newt Gingrich leverage his portrayal of the GOP front-runner as a former corporate raider who enriched himself by looting companies and laying off workers. On Tuesday, Gingrich said it was “totally unfair” to take Romney’s remark out of its health care context and that he wouldn’t do so.
A former governor of neighboring Massachusetts who owns a vacation home in New Hampshire, Romney has long enjoyed a substantial lead in the polls here.
“If I am president of the United States, I will not forget New Hampshire,” Romney said during a Monday night rally in Bedford, hinting at the impact of the contest while surrounded on by his wife, children and grandchildren.
None of Romney’s rivals has proved to be a consistent and credible threat to the former Massachusetts governor. The latest to emerge from the pack is Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who used a passion for social conservatism and a populist economic message to come within eight votes of Romney in Iowa’s caucuses.
New Hampshire, which allows independents to vote in its primary, will help decide whether a candidate with Santorum’s focus can appeal to a broader electorate, as would be required in a successful general election. On the other side, Huntsman is relying upon independents and moderate Republicans to fuel a late surge to relevancy.
Polls suggested Huntsman may be on the rise, but New Hampshire voters will decide if it it’s too little, too late. He could be pushed out of the nomination race if he finishes below third place in the six-man field.
A former ambassador to China in the Obama administration, Huntsman spent the final 48 hours trying to capitalize on a notable debate exchange with Romney. A relentless critic of President Barack Obama, Romney had criticized Huntsman for serving in Obama’s administration. Huntsman countered that he had put his country ahead of partisan politics.
Huntsman aired a new television ad highlighting his call for national unity and adopted a new campaign slogan, borrowing “Country First” from 2008 GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry joined the Romney bashing that intensified over the past few days from South Carolina, where he’s been campaigning.