Primary Day in New Hampshire turned into open season as GOP rivals launched a barrage of attacks seeking to undermine front-runner Mitt Romney, whose campaign hopes to live up to expectations that he will deliver a solid victory.
Not only does Romney need to win, he needs to win convincingly — holding challengers such as Rick Santorum, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich and a resurgent Jon Huntsman comfortably at arm's length.
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.
Trouble Either Way
A narrow win in the nation's first presidential primary — or a surprisingly strong finish from one of his rivals — will be played up as more evidence that Republicans still have their doubts about Romney. By contrast, a strong showing could galvanize the anti-Romney vote ahead of the Jan. 21 primary in South Carolina, which has a strong track record of picking the eventual Republican nominee.
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 superPAC criticizing the former Massachusetts governor for his tenure as head of private equity firm Bain Capital.
And after Romney's remark at a Monday event 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.
NPR's Mara Liasson said the Gingrich strategy of questioning Romney's past business dealings is "a very unusual attack coming from Republicans, but it is the kind of attack we expect to come from Democrats in the general election."
Romney's real rivals, she said, are expectations. A tracking poll released Tuesday by Suffolk University/7News put Romney at 37 percent, Paul at 18 percent, Huntsman at 16 percent, Santorum at 11 percent and Gingrich at 9 percent, with Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer trailing with 1 percent each.
"Mitt Romney may beat his closest competitor by a 2-to-1 margin," said David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk University Political Research Center in Boston. "With two solid debate performances, Romney weathered the storm earlier this week, while no opponent made a serious run at him."
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. That was evident in the tiny town of Dixville Notch, where the first few ballots in the primary were cast at midnight. Romney and Huntsman each received two of the six votes; Gingrich and Texas Rep. Paul got one vote apiece.
"Dixville Notch might be a harbinger in this race," Huntsman, who skipped Iowa to pin his hopes on a decent showing in New Hampshire, said early Tuesday.
Polls suggested Huntsman may be on the rise, but New Hampshire voters will decide whether it is too little, too late. The former Utah governor could be pushed out of the nomination race if he finishes below third place in the six-man field.
Most of New Hampshire's polling places will close at 7 p.m. ET, and all will be closed by 8 p.m.
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."
Despite attacks on the campaign trail, the candidates seemed eager to present a kinder side to voters as they headed to the polls.
"I'm not going to play gotcha politics," said Santorum, who rocketed to prominence with a virtual tie with Romney in Iowa.
The former Pennsylvania senator 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.
NPR's Liasson said Santorum's Iowa surge "appears to have tapered off in New Hampshire. He's already looking to South Carolina."
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."
The former House speaker might have a tremendous impact on the contest 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.