The race is on for second place. And probably third place, too.
Polls in New Hampshire indicate that Mitt Romney should win a convincing plurality in the first Republican Party primary, which takes place there Tuesday.
Voting will end in most of the state at 7 p.m. ET, with all polling places closed by 8 p.m.
New Hampshire has long been considered favorable territory for Romney, who served as governor of neighboring Massachusetts. Despite a recent barrage of attacks by his rivals, Romney is still expected to prevail.
But, as has been the case for months, jockeying is intense for the position of Romney’s leading opponent. That race, in New Hampshire, appears to be wide open.
Huntsman Coming Up
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman bet his candidacy on a strong showing in New Hampshire, where he believed he could attract moderates and independent voters, who are allowed to participate in the GOP contest. He skipped the Jan. 3 caucuses in Iowa.
Huntsman appears to have gained ground in recent days. But he may not be able to snatch second place from Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who enjoys a good deal of organizational strength in the state.
Hoping to outdo them both are former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, who are vying for the role of being the main conservative champion against Romney, particularly as the campaign heads into South Carolina.
NPR’s Mara Liasson said Santorum’s Iowa surge, which placed him in a virtual tie with Romney in that state, “appears to have tapered off in New Hampshire. He’s already looking to South Carolina.”
South Carolina holds its primary next, on Jan. 21.
Santorum said another second-place in New Hampshire would be “a dream come true.” However, he noted that there wasn’t time enough to capitalize on that momentum before Tuesday and that he would be content to pull a double-digit percentage of the votes.
“No winner of the South Carolina primary has been victorious who did not first win Iowa or New Hampshire,” says David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University.
“That said,” Woodard continues, “the question this year is, can Romney win a red state?”
Hoping For A Close Finish
With voting under way early Tuesday, Gingrich told Fox News Channel’s Fox & Friends that he believes “the biggest story today” is that Romney will fall short of “any reasonable expectation” in New Hampshire, particularly since he has been heavily favored there all along.
A narrow win in the nation’s first presidential primary — or a surprisingly strong finish from one of his rivals — would be played up as more evidence that Republicans still have their doubts about Romney.
Romney has poured considerable money and effort into New Hampshire, but has been sideswiped in recent days by a multimillion-dollar ad campaign created by a Gingrich-affiliated super PAC criticizing the former Massachusetts governor for his tenure as head of private equity firm Bain Capital.
After Romney’s remark at an event Monday that “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me” — a comment regarding the health insurance industry that he says was taken out of context — Gingrich and others pounced, calling him cold-hearted and out of touch and saying that Bain shut down companies and laid off workers.
Appearing at a Monday evening rally in a final call to action at a packed middle school gymnasium, Romney, who owns a vacation home in New Hampshire, reminded voters that he and his family had been coming to the state for 40 years. He also hoped aloud that New Hampshire would give him a meatier victory than the razor-thin one he took in last week’s Iowa caucuses.
“I hope that you’re going to be able to give me a bigger margin of victory than the eight votes I got in Iowa. You think we can do that?” he said, telling the crowd: “If I am president of the United States, I will not forget New Hampshire.”
Huntsman Goes All In
But doubts persist about Romney, especially among hard-core conservatives, Tea Party activists and evangelicals.
Donna Parris, 52, an independent from Concord, cast her vote for Huntsman and against the Romney steamroller. “The leader of the pack right now, I don’t want in there,” Parris told The Associated Press. She described Romney as “just a real political-speaking guy that I don’t think is going to change anything.”
In late November, Gingrich garnered what many consider a key endorsement from New Hampshire’s Union Leader newspaper. The editorial board wrote that Gingrich “is by no means the perfect candidate” while noting that “Republican primary voters … often make the mistake of preferring an unattainable ideal to the best candidate who is actually running.”
Given his plans to spend millions attacking Romney in the coming days, Gingrich might have a major impact on the race even if he doesn’t fare well personally.
Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Rick Perry joined the Romney bashing from South Carolina, where he’s been planted for the past week.
NPR’s Mara Liasson and Ari Shapiro reported from New Hampshire for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press.