Romney held on to the demeanour of the overwhelming favourite, despite coming under increasing volleys of criticism from his rivals and suffering an ill-timed, foot-in-mouth moment on the eve of the nation’s first presidential primary.
A narrower-than-expected win for the former Massachusetts governor — or a surprisingly strong finish from one of his opponents — could shake things up. Either would be seen as more evidence that Republican voters still are not sold on Romney, who barely squeezed out his first win in the Iowa caucuses.
A microcosm of such doubts was on display with the first ballots cast, in tiny Dixville Notch, the village that traditionally votes at midnight. Romney and Jon Huntsman each received two of the six votes. One went to Newt Gingrich and the other to Ron Paul, the libertarian-leaning candidate who is dismissed by many Republicans nationally but has been polling in second place in the state for months.
“Dixville Notch might be a harbinger in this race,” said Huntsman, a former Utah governor who skipped Iowa to pin his hopes on a strong showing among New Hampshire’s independents and moderates.
The rest of New Hampshire voters were going to the polls throughout yesterday. Donna Parris, 52, an independent from Concord, cast her vote for Huntsman — against the Romney steamroller.
“The leader of the pack right now, I don’t want in there,” Parris said, describing Romney as “just a real political-speaking guy that I don’t think is going to change anything”.
A grinning Gingrich arrived at a polling site in Manchester with wife, Callista, to greet voters but was met instead by a crush of reporters. He compared the crowd to Mardi Gras except “not nearly as much fun”. The former House speaker said he expected to finish in the top three or four among the field of six serious candidates, but predicted it would be Romney who would be hurt the most in the vote — by falling short of expectations. New Hampshire was expected to be Romney’s stronghold, Gingrich said, and “I don’t think it’s going to be much of a fortress”.
But other candidates had more on the line in the first primary. Speculation was already mounting about which candidates might be pushed out of the race if they finished below third place.
Rick Santorum, who rocketed to prominence with a virtual tie with Romney in Iowa, said there was not time enough to capitalise on that momentum before New Hampshire 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. “There’s going to be lots of opportunities to rise and fall,” he said. Asked if he might pull off second place behind Romney, Santorum said, “Just the mention of that would be beyond our dreams.”
Third place was being discussed as the equivalent of a win for much of the field because Paul, the quirky Texas congressman, seemed to have a lock on second place. Visiting a polling place in Nashua, Paul said he expected to win “a real nice second place” and to perhaps be closer on Romney’s heels than had been predicted.
Romney shot himself in the foot on Monday by declaring that he liked being able to fire people, and his rivals were quick to pounce. But some pulled back from their attacks yesterday, noting that Romney’s clumsy quote actually referred to his support for individuals being able to ditch their health insurance companies to avail of better coverage elsewhere.
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 relevance.