People wait outside a Concord, N.H., polling station for primary voting. (Alex Wong / Getty Images )
Reporting from Manchester, N.H. —
The polls are open through most of New Hampshire, where a record turnout is forecast for the nation's first presidential primary.
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, overseeing his ninth presidential primary, estimated that a quarter of a million ballots could be cast in the GOP race, which would exceed the nearly 240,000 ballots cast four years ago.
Pre-election surveys suggest that Mitt Romney has an insurmountable lead, but a fierce battle was nonetheless waged in the final days as other candidates fought to beat expectations in anticipation of the next primary in South Carolina.
The final Suffolk University tracking poll saw Romney ticking up four percentage points in the final day. He led Ron Paul 37%-18%.
A win for Romney would be unprecedented in this respect: No Republican has ever won both the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. Romney's eight-vote advantage in Iowa has not yet been certified, though GOP officials there said they didn't expect the result to change.
In his closing argument to voters Monday night, Romney said he wanted a more convincing win here.
"You're going to make a statement tomorrow," he said at a rally in Bedford. "Give me the boost I need."
The late buzz in the race all centered around Jon Huntsman Jr., who has staked his political livelihood on a strong performance here. The Suffolk poll saw him gaining three points in the final day, placing third with 16% support.
Speaking to an enthusiastic crowd in Keene on Monday night, the former Utah governor continued to press his closing "country first" message, arguing that Romney has put "politics first."
"Can you feel a little bit of momentum in the air?" he asked. "We're going to surprise a whole lot of people in this country tomorrow night."
It's Paul, the Texas congressman, that polls have generally shown to be Romney's closest challenger, with Huntsman bunched with Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in a race for third in the final University of New Hampshire poll.
Gardner predicted that about 75,000 will vote in the Democratic primary, where President Obama shares the ballot with a roster of little-known hopefuls. More than 287,000 voted in the 2008 Democratic primary, won in stunning fashion by Hillary Clinton.
There were 769,183 registered voters in New Hampshire in the final pre-election count that city and town clerks reported to the secretary of state's office on Jan. 4.
Of that number, more than 546,000 are eligible to vote in the Republican race -- 232,133 Republicans and 314,278 who registered as "undeclared" and can choose either a Democratic or Republican ballot today.
New Hampshire does allow same-day registration, which Gardner says typically accounts for about 12% of the total turnout.
Though there is absentee voting for the primary, Gardner said that only a small fraction of the state's resident will have voted before today. It's "part of the ritual" to actually vote on election day here, he said, in part because many voters won't have settled on a choice until the last possible moment.
"Campaigns build to these crescendos," he said Monday. "A lot of significant events take place -- sometimes defining moments occur -- in the last week."
Twenty-two ballots have already been counted in the North Country communities of Dixville Notch and Hart's Location, where balloting took place just after midnight. Of those cast in the Republican primary, Romney leads so far with seven votes; Paul has five; Huntsman, four; Gingrich, two and Rick Perry, one.
Voting in most other locations statewide opened at 8 a.m. The polls close at 7 p.m. in all but a handful of cities and towns in the southern part of the state, where they close at 8 p.m.