Early turnout brisk in NH primary

Obama, McCain get early nods in NH primary
December 22, 2008 2:02:15 PM PST
Streams of voters filed into polling stations Tuesday to decide the high-stakes race for the New Hampshire presidential primaries, a morning rush-hour for politics that found three Republican hopefuls bumping into each other at a Manchester church.

Only five days after the Iowa caucuses opened the presidential race, New Hampshire had its say in a contest pitting John McCain against Mitt Romney at the top of the crowded Republican field and Barack Obama bidding for a second win against Democratic rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards.

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 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."

Moments later a third GOP contender, Mitt Romney, arrived at the site and predicted, "The Republicans will vote for me. The independents will get behind me."

Giuliani waved off a question about his decline in polls, pointing to the church and saying, "The only poll I'm interested in is the one that goes on inside there." That wasn't exactly so. At his New Hampshire headquarters, he asserted that opinion polls in some 15 states find him on top.

The nation's first primary offered Obama a chance to become the clear favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination while McCain and Romney competed head to head in a Republican race that could sink the aspirations of one of them.

Paradoxically, the struggle for primacy in the Democratic and Republican campaigns was, to an outsized degree, in the hands of independents who make up a large share of the voters here and by definition are not loyal to either party.

Clinton and her daughter Chelsea poured coffee for voters and a police officer at a Manchester elementary school before dawn. They were greeted by a dozen voters and twice as many supporters outside. "We're going to work all day to get the vote out," she said. Her next stop was at a polling place in a Nashua high school, where pupils who had just arrived by bus screamed with excitement and enveloped her. She worked her way to a group of 50 supporters, some hugging her as she moved down the line greeting them.

At a school in a working class Manchester neighborhood, Anna and Adam Helbling looked beyond the passions of the moment to the Democrat they think could win in the fall, and voted for Obama. "I really wanted to vote for Hillary, but I think Obama has a really good chance against a Republican rival," Anna said.

Huckabee wooed independent Joe Legay by pouring him coffee from a doughnut-shop container. "I'm independent so I have to be quiet," Legay said when Huckabee asked how he would vote. He said later he voted for Obama.

Kathy Nadeau, 49, a property manager, backed Clinton because of her experience. "Hillary has done a good job in Washington," she said, "and I think she can bail us out."

The high number of independents presented an opportunity for McCain, a GOP iconoclast who won New Hampshire against establishment pick George W. Bush in 2000, and for Obama, pressing hard to build a constituency broader than his party. But it also was a complication because they were dipping into the same nonaligned pool.

Even so, polls indicated Obama had pulled ahead of Clinton as she fought to write a "comeback kid" story to rival that of her husband, Bill, in 1992. The difference: His second-place finish in New Hampshire sparked his revival. As the presumptive national favorite until she finished third in Iowa, Hillary Clinton needed a win to get her equilibrium back.

In a northern New Hampshire hamlet tradition, voters of Dixville Notch and Hart's Location cast the first 46 ballots of the primary season -- half for Democrats and half for Republicans -- at midnight, hours before polls opened statewide at 6 a.m. EST. Polls close at 8 p.m.

Combined results from the two spots showed Obama with 16 votes, Clinton 3, Edwards 3 and Bill Richardson, 1. On the Republican side, McCain received 10 votes, Huckabee 5, Ron Paul 4, Romney 3 and Giuliani 1.

In a detour into diplomacy, Obama phoned Kenyan opposition leader Raila Odinga on Monday and was expected to do the same Tuesday with President Mwai Kibaki, whose disputed victory in the Dec. 27 elections led to an eruption of violence across the country. The Illinois senator, whose father was Kenyan, "called to express grave concern over the election outcome," Odinga spokesman Salim Lone told AP.

Campaigns spared no effort to get out the vote. Clinton' campaign was mobilizing more than 6,000 volunteers to knock on doors and nearly 300 drivers. Romney said his state headquarters, his "machine shop," had made 100,000 phone calls.

About 45 percent of the state's more than 830,000 registered voters were unaffiliated, more than double the percentage in Iowa, and they can vote in either party primary.

Oddly, it was the 71-year-old McCain who seemed to gather more energy as a brutal day of campaigning unfolded Monday. Obama, ignoring medical advice to rest his ragged voice, flubbed a line to comical effect ("The time for come has change!") while Clinton let her emotions nearly spill over.

Conceding the rhetorical advantage to the first-term Illinois senator, the second-term New York senator and former first lady said her opponent was untested in times that require her firm grasp of policy. "What is the substance here?" she demanded. "You know, where is the reality?"

Aides have urged her to show more passion and emotion, and, coincidentally or not, she did so by nearly breaking down during a restaurant appearance. Eyes welling up and voice quavering, she declared the campaign "is very personal for me. It's not just political."

Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina, hoped Clinton would be sufficiently weakened Tuesday to give him an opening and, to that end, he aimed his barbs at her instead of the front-runner. He again portrayed her as an agent of the status quo.

McCain held a statistically insignificant lead over Romney in late polls. Obama had a clear advantage over Clinton in surveys and Edwards trailed both, with Richardson, the New Mexico governor, in the rear.

Iowa GOP winner Huckabee campaigned vigorously in New Hampshire in the final days but without expectations of victory. He, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and one-time national poll leader Giuliani looked to later contests.


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