New Hampshire Goes to Polls in First Primary The race is crucial for Hillary Clinton and John McCain. In last-minute campaigning, Clinton struggled to avoid a highly damaging second straight defeat in the Democratic presidential race. Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney fought hard for victory in New Hampshire, where neither could afford to lose.
NPR logo New Hampshire Goes to Polls in First Primary

New Hampshire Goes to Polls in First Primary

Video: Canvassing in New Hampshire
David Gilkey, NPR

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Voters filed into polling stations in New Hampshire on Tuesday in the nation's first presidential primary, a crucial test for candidates who only five days ago squared off in the Iowa caucuses.

Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney were battling for the top spot amid the crowded Republican field, while Sen. Barack Obama was hoping for a repeat of Iowa, when he won an upset victory over Sen. Hillary Clinton.

Supporters mobbed an upbeat McCain at a Nashua polling station, making it hard for him to reach voters as they filed inside. Noting he outpolled rivals in two tiny northern hamlets that voted before the rest of the state, McCain joked: "It has all the earmarks of a landslide, with the Dixville Notch vote."

Weather was spring-like and the turnout, according to early signs, brisk. At Brookside Congregational Church in Manchester, 50 voters lined up before dawn and people waited in their cars for a parking space after doors opened. When former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee passed fellow GOP candidate Rudy Giuliani outside, Huckabee jokingly asked the former New York mayor for his vote.

"We get along beautifully on the trail," Huckabee said. "No animosity."

Long-shot GOP hopeful Rep. Duncan Hunter attended the vote in Dixville Notch, where results were announced before 12:06 a.m.

"It epitomizes people-to-people politicking," Hunter said minutes before the votes were cast. He received no votes in either Dixville Notch or Hart's Location, where voters also cast ballots just after midnight.

While most New Hampshire residents have to wait until daybreak to vote, those in the two far northern towns have been going to the polls at midnight for decades, under a state law that says municipalities with fewer than 100 people can vote early.

Obama has been drawing large, boisterous crowds since he won the Iowa caucuses, and a spate of pre-primary polls showed him powering to a lead in New Hampshire, too.

"You're the wave, and I'm riding it," he told several hundred voters who cheered him Monday in 40-degree weather after being turned away from an indoor rally filled to capacity.

Clinton runs second in the surveys, with former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina third, and the former first lady and her aides seemed to be bracing for another setback.

At one stop, Clinton appeared to struggle with her emotions when asked how she copes with the grind of the campaign — but her words still had bite.

"Some of us are ready and some of us are not," she said in remarks aimed at Obama.

Opinion polls showed the Republican race a close one between McCain, the Arizona senator seeking to rebound from last summer's near collapse of his campaign, and Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.

Romney cast himself as the Republican best able to hold the White House.

After first declining to predict victory in a state where he had led in surveys for months, Romney exuded confidence by the end of the day.

"I'm convinced we're going to win tomorrow," he boasted at a rally for his staff at the campaign's headquarters. He attributed the change of heart to 100,000 telephone calls made by his staff, and his performance in back-to-back nationally televised debates on Saturday and Sunday.

McCain set out on a packed day of campaigning through seven cities. In a snow-draped setting in Keene, there seemed little doubt he had Romney in mind when he said voters would reject negative campaigning.

"I don't care how many attack ads you buy on television," he said.

Romney has run several TV commercials against McCain in New Hampshire, arguing that the senator's immigration plan would offer amnesty for illegal immigrants and painting him as a disloyal Republican for twice opposing President Bush's tax cuts. McCain responded with an ad that includes a quote from The Concord Monitor that suggested Romney was a phony.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

A Tale of Two New Hampshire Towns

A Tale of Two New Hampshire Towns

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The New Hampshire towns of Epping and Newmarket are part of an extraordinary streak — for half a century they've been dead on in forecasting the winners of the state's presidential primary.

In Epping, voters have predicted who would win the Democratic primary; in Newmarket they've predicted the Republican winner.

"We just know what we're doing, that's all," says Elaine Gatchell.

Joe Denocour agrees.

"(We're) just everyday people ... and the average is usually the one that wins out in the end," he says.

Mark Valone of Epping speculates that his granddad, Thomas Fecto, had something to do with Epping's ability to pick a winner.

Streak Dates to 1930s

From the 1930s to the 1970s, Thomas Fecto ran a popular country store.

"He could speak English well, and a lot of people in town couldn't. And so a lot of them worked in the shoe shops or the brick yard or on the farm. Those were his constituents," Valone says.

Not only did Fecto have constituents, but New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner says the man had a national reputation in Democratic circles.

"Anytime any Democrat was going to do anything in Epping, Tom Fecto would be the person they would talk to first," Gardner says. "He was Mr. Democrat of Epping."

Fecto met with the nation's most prominent Democrats since Harry Truman in the 1940s.

Valone says his grandfather had a sharp political eye.

"He supported Kennedy in '60, Johnson in '64 and '68. He supported Muskie in '72, Carter in '76 and '80. (In) '84, I don't know how he went. In '88, I know he was a big Dukakis fan," Valone recalls.

Fecto almost always backed the primary winner, but he hasn't been around for the past three or four races.

But Valone, who is also the town's Democratic Party chairman, has a thought about the more recent contests, too. He believes geography has something to do with Epping's stellar record.

"We are halfway between Portsmouth and Manchester," Valone observes. "And the Portsmouth Democrats are much more liberal than the Manchester ones, and we are sort of a mix. So, I think we are a good smattering of everybody who makes up the party just in this small town.

GOP Candidates Don't Visit

The residents in the neighboring town of Newmarket have been equally successful in picking the Republican winner.

While the streak here is harder to explain, it may be more impressive because historically Republicans make up such an extremely small voting bloc in town.

In 1952, when the record started, only 185 of them voted out of more than 1,700 ballots cast.

But this tiny population has somehow, time and time again, captured the prevailing attitudes of state Republicans.

Even so, Jay Dougal says, GOP candidates never stop for a visit.

"John Edwards was here. Hillary stopped by for tea. As far as specific individuals, it's kind of funny, I don't recall any Republicans coming through Newmarket," Dougal says.

These GOP candidates aren't the only ones who don't know about Newmarket's impressive track record. Most locals are ignorant of it, too.

When residents learn about it, though, they are instantly proud.

Cynthia Harris says she hopes the trend continues.

"Now, I'm thinking you are jinxing it. I'm getting nervous," she says.

Harris has a right to be concerned. In just the past 20 years, 52 other bellwether cities and towns have dropped by the wayside.

And any statistician will tell you, Epping and Newmarket will go the same way — eventually.

With tight races on both sides Tuesday, Gardner is just going to relish the fact that the streak lasted through 14 primaries.

"I don't know whether they will keep their record. They've been pretty good at keeping it, so I wouldn't want to bet too much against it," he says.

Dan Gorenstein reports for New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord, NH.