Voting under way in New Hampshire primary

Polls open in first primary election for Republican nominee for the US presidency, with Mitt Romney in strong position.

    Voting is under way in the US state of New Hampshire, where candidates for the Republican presidential nomination are vying for victory in the first primary of the US election season.

    Voters in Dixville Notch - the tiny village of nine people where ballots are traditionally cast shortly after midnight - turned out early on Tuesday with Mitt Romney, the frontrunner, and Jon Huntsman earning two votes each and Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul gaining one vote apiece.

    Polls opened at various times at other locations across the state, starting at 6:00am local time (11:00 GMT) and ending at 8:00pm local time (1:00am GMT on Wednesday).

    Huntsman, a former US ambassador to China who has staked his hopes on a strong showing in New Hampshire, is gaining support in the New England state, even though polls suggest he still trails Romney by a very large margin.

    Also on the move in a new poll is Rick Santorum, the former senator who has surged into fourth place from a base of almost no support in the northeastern state.

    Shifting voter loyalties came as Republican contenders squared off in two debates over the weekend, and staged a last-minute whirlwind of campaigning before the influential primary.

    Romney, a former governor of neighbouring Massachusetts, had 40 per cent support in a survey of likely Republican primary voters conducted last week.

    That was up from 35 per cent in a previous poll in mid-December.

    Behind Romney

    Huntsman was second with 17 per cent - up from 13 per cent - while support for Paul, a Texas congressman, slipped to 16 per cent from 21 per cent.

    Santorum, who lost narrowly to Romney in last week's Iowa caucuses, surged to 12 per cent from just one per cent in December.

    Meanwhile, support for former Newt Gingrich, the former House of Representatives speaker, fell to eight per cent from 16 per cent.

    Romney has a wide lead among New Hampshire's registered Republican voters and also among those who considered themselves supporters of the conservative Tea Party movement.

    Independents, who can vote in Tuesday's primary, are expected to split their votes more evenly, with 30 per cent backing Romney, 24 per cent backing Huntsman and 20 per cent voicing support for Paul.

    Al Jazeera's Scott Heidler, reporting from New Hampshire, said: "It's going to be Mitt Romney who comes out on top of these polls but there's a horse race for other positions under Romney."

    State politics

    New Hampshire's primary was the first test for presidential hopefuls before the date of Iowa caucuses was moved up in 1972.

    Al Jazeera's Scott Heidler explains the mechanics behind the New Hampshire primary

    Critics of the primary in New Hampshire say it is arcane, unrepresentative and given undue media attention.

    With a population of a little over one million, New Hampshire is one of the 10 least populated states in the country.

    Only 12 delegates are at stake in the primary, compared with 25 and 50 delegates up for grabs in the South Carolina and Florida primaries which follow.

    But defenders of the primary say it offers a true indicator of public opinion and acts as a leveller and winnower of the candidates.

    Winners in the Granite state have had mixed success in getting their party's nomination, a fact that has also raised questions about the primary's relevance.

    John McCain won the Republican primary in 2000 but lost the bid to George Bush. In 2008 Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary but the party's choice went to Obama.

    Romney, if he wins in New Hampshire, would be the first non-incumbent Republican to win both Iowa and New Hampshire since the 1970s.

    Brad Marston, a Republican operative in New Hampshire, however, said that with new rules regarding how the number of state delegates are allocated, the race for the nomination is far from over.

    "It's about how much does [Romney] wins by . . . clearly he is the odds-on favourite. I think one of the things people are forgetting about is that the Republican party has changed the rules this time. In the past it's always been 'winner-take-all': if you won New Hampshire with 35 per cent of the vote, you got 100 per cent of the delegates," he told Al Jazeera.

    "That is not true this time. From now until April 1, we're allocating our delegates on a proportional basis. That makes it that much harder to score an early knockout. If I was advising a second-tier candidate, I'd be looking at the caucases. There could be won with volunteer organisations and volunteer efforts, and just doing enough to stay in the game and hope that Romney as the frontrunner stumbles."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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