Manchester: With Mitt Romney poised to stride toward the Republican presidential nomination by capturing New Hampshire on Tuesday, all eyes were on whether he could win big enough to convince his party he is the best candidate to defeat Democrat Barack Obama.
Despite his rivals` fierce eleventh-hour attacks that he is a heartless corporate raider who enjoys cutting jobs, the former governor of neighbouring Massachusetts carried a sizeable poll lead into voting day.
With nearly a 20-point edge in opinion polls, Romney`s cushion was sufficient enough to force leading rivals Ron Paul, who appeals to New Hampshire`s anti-government strain, and Jon Huntsman, who has campaigned almost exclusively in the state, into a battle to be a strong runner-up.
But Romney was looking to go beyond the lukewarm endorsement of voters like Dave Searles, 56, a Windham software developer who said he cast his ballot for Romney because he was most likely to beat Obama.
"He wouldn`t have been my first choice, but sometimes you have to make sacrifices," he said.
Rick Santorum, a socially conservative former senator, has trailed in New Hampshire polls despite coming in just behind Romney in Iowa`s caucuses last week. Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, is also well behind.
Romney would be the first Republican who is not an incumbent president to win the first two early voting states, after his slim eight-vote victory over former Pennsylvania Senator Santorum a week ago in Iowa.
Romney visited a polling station in Manchester and said he hoped the state would make a "big statement" for his candidacy. "You see great enthusiasm," he said.
A resounding win would provide momentum going into South Carolina on January 21 and Florida on January 31. Romney leads in polls of both states and victories there could all but sew up his nomination to face Obama as he seeks re-election on November 6.
It was unclear how much damage had been done by a mess of his own making in which Romney declared "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me," in discussing the need for greater competition between health insurance companies.
Romney`s opponents seized on the comment as evidence that the former venture capitalist is an out-of-touch politician and coupled it with attacks over his record at Bain Capital, a firm that bought companies and restructured them.
"Governor Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs," Huntsman said.
In a sharp departure for a party known as friendly to business, Republicans seeking to slow Romney bashed his work as a venture capitalist.
Gingrich, brooding over negative attacks from Romney and his backers that knocked him out of the front-runner position, has launched the toughest onslaught.
"Mitt Romney was not a capitalist during his reign at Bain. He was a predatory corporate raider," a video produced by a pro-Gingrich group said.
Yet not all voters were swayed.
"I saw him work as a businessman. He sees what needs to be done and gets it done," said nurse Dennis Hamson, 58, as he voted in Londonderry, a southern New Hampshire town where many residents work in Massachusetts.
Results should start flowing in shortly after New Hampshire voting stations close at 7 p.m. EST (midnight GMT). About 250,000 people are expected to vote in the Republican primary while 75,000 are likely to vote to endorse Obama`s re-election.
In Dixville Notch, the tiny hamlet that traditionally votes at midnight to kick off New Hampshire`s first-in-the-nation primary, the nine voters were split. Romney and Huntsman each received two votes and Obama received three.
Although polls give him the best chance of defeating Obama, Romney has struggled to win more than 25 percent support in national surveys on the nomination race. Some Republicans worry he is too moderate on fiscal issues or topics like abortion and gay marriage.
Romney`s rivals were mostly waging a fierce battle to win undecided voters to capture second place. "He`s a homeboy. He`s been here for a whole lot of years... you serve in the neighboring state as governor, you`ve got a lot of advantages in terms of name recognition," Huntsman said on MSNBC.
Both US Representative Paul and Huntsman, a former Utah governor who was the US ambassador to China, have been rising in the polls in recent days.
Santorum, who nearly won Iowa by appealing to social conservatives, has not seen that message resonate in New Hampshire.
Luke Breen, 52, a financial analyst who voted for Huntsman in Londonderry, said he would not support a candidate who seemed intolerant. "He seemed to be more worldly," he said. "I know gay people and everyone has to have gay rights under our constitution."
Santorum and Perry, along with Gingrich, are looking ahead and plan to challenge Romney in South Carolina on January 21.
Romney leads there for now but Gingrich backers have launched $3.4 million worth of ads in South Carolina to try to slow him down in the more conservative southern state.
A Suffolk University/7 News tracking poll on Tuesday showed Romney with 37 percent support among New Hampshire voters, versus 18 percent for Paul, 16 percent for Huntsman, 11 percent for Santorum, 9 percent for Gingrich and 1 percent for Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Seven percent of voters were undecided in the telephone survey on Sunday and Monday, which had an error margin of 4.4 percentage points.