LEAD: New Hampshire heads to presidential primary polls
By Anne K Walters Jan 10, 2012, 14:56 GMT
Manchester, New Hampshire - Voters in the north-eastern US state of New Hampshire were headed to the polls Tuesday in a primary contest that will help determine which Republican candidate faces President Barack Obama in November general elections.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was the clear favourite, but all the major candidates have been traveling the state in recent days to rally support.
There was a steady stream of voters into polling stations in Salem, and many were enthusiastic about their role in picking the Republican nominee.
Romney voters described him as best positioned to go up against Obama and pointed to his business experience and family life as positives.
Political analysts said the main race is for second place. Ron Paul has been in second in opinion surveys, and has strong appeal to the state's independent streak with his stances on free markets, smaller government and opposition to US foreign intervention.
Other players who could make a strong showing include Jon Huntsman, a former Utah governor and ambassador to China, who has staked his entire campaign on success in New Hampshire after skipping the Iowa caucuses.
Rick Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, has gained ground after coming within eight votes of Romney in Iowa; while former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich has also sought to present himself as a conservative alternative to Romney.
New Hampshire voters casting their ballots for those candidates expressed their desire to make a statement about the role of government as well as social values.
'It looks like Romney is inevitable,' said John Ruggerio, 71. 'But I will put my opinion in for Santorum.'
He pointed to the social issues as key in deciding his vote, but said he was impressed in recent days by the strength of Santorum's economic plan.
Another voter, John Marshall, 38, didn't make up his mind until he was standing in the voting booth, but ultimately settled on Gingrich rather than Paul. 'I had to go with my true ideology as opposed to a protest vote,' he said.
First results were already in from residents of one small town that cast their votes at midnight. Dixville Notch, which is the first to vote at midnight in each election, sent two votes to Romney and two votes to Huntsman.
Gingrich and Paul each secured one vote, while Obama got three votes. Obama, a Democrat appears in a state Democratic primary against a series of fringe candidates, but is essentially unopposed for his party's nomination.
The tiny state of 1.3 million residents plays an outsized role in picking presidential contenders, and has long held the first party primaries. Along with the small central state of Iowa, which holds party caucuses, New Hampshire draws inordinate attention from candidates who spend months attempting to woo voters face-to-face.
Each town in the state sets its own polling hours, but all polls will close by 8 pm (0100 GMT Wednesday).