MANCHESTER, N.H. — Republican candidates jockeyed here for voters’ support in rapid succession Tuesday, capping an intense and harsh campaign that appeared to set the tone for the unpredictable nominating race that lies ahead.
New York businessman Donald Trump, who has held a sizable lead in the Republican race in New Hampshire, appeared poised to win his first contest of the 2016 campaign after finishing second in Iowa a week ago. But on his heels were five others waging a fierce battle for coveted top-tier finishes — and the bragging rights and resources as the campaign heads next to South Carolina.
While Trump constrained his campaigning Tuesday morning to doing the rounds of a couple of TV shows, several of his rivals hit the streets to greet voters in a state in which residents often make up their minds at the last minute. Within the space of 2 1/2 hours, three Republican hopefuls — Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former Florida governor Jeb Bush — all stopped by Manchester’s Webster School to chat with voters as they arrived.
In the Democratic race, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) maintained his double-digit lead over former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. After winning only narrowly in Iowa, Clinton braced for defeat while hoping to keep the damage from spilling over into upcoming states where she long has been dominant.
Following tradition, the voting got underway at midnight in some hamlets to kick off the first-in-the-nation primary. The towns delivered mixed verdicts. In tiny Dixville Notch, whose residents have been voting at midnight since 1960, all four Democratic votes went to Sanders. On the Republican side, Ohio Gov. John Kasich received three and Trump had two.
Presidential candidates have often viewed Dixville Notch as a harbinger for the state’s overall results, even if its voters are not always prescient. But it had company this year. In Millsfield, roughly an hour south of the Canadian border, residents revived midnight voting. Clinton beat Sanders with two votes to one, while Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) got nine votes, Trump took three and a few other Republicans got one vote each.
In an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Kasich said he took the Dixville Notch contest so seriously that he called every voter in town. “Hey, you know, we came out strong,” he told host George Stephanopoulos.
Kasich added that he had already “sent my bus — my magic bus — down to South Carolina” to get a jump on the next presidential contest.
Rubio, who is struggling to reclaim momentum after stumbling in the last debate, portrayed the growing attacks from rivals as a sign of his campaign’s strength.
“It’s great to be targeted, because it means you’re doing something right,” he told ABC’s Stephanopoulos.
Around 7:45 a.m. Rubio arrived at the Webster School, where voting was well underway. Amid competing shouts of “Marco!” “Trump!” and “Ro-bot!” (a reference to Rubio’s speaking style), the senator greeted supporters, telling some: “I’ll see you guys again in November.”
Rubio’s mentor-turned-adversary, Bush, arrived at the school about two hours after he had left, still hoping to sway some voters before polls close starting at 7 p.m.
“The great thing about being in New Hampshire is that you can basically change the course of the race by who you think is capable of being president,” Bush told a woman who said she was still undecided.
The polling station also held its share of Sanders voters, several of whom yelled “Feel the Bern!” on their way in or out of the school.
Sanders is capitalizing in part on the fact that he represents a neighboring state, Vermont, although his campaign has been fueled more by widespread discontent with the political system among many liberals and the enthusiasm of young voters.
In diners, on factory floors and at big rallies, the candidates encountered voters, one after another, who had yet to make up their minds — a reminder that New Hampshire is a state where voters have sprung surprises in the closing days of past presidential primaries.
Despite the fact that neither contest this year appears to have a genuine race for first place, the net effect of the voting could be to draw out both nomination battles well into the spring. A commanding win by Sanders that further exposes weaknesses in Clinton’s coalition, along with a photo finish for second and third place in the Republican race, could upend both contests.
For Republicans, the campaign trail in the final push was like a game of political billiards — with attacks flying fast and in all directions, reflecting the jumbled field and the uncertain fates that await so many of the candidates.
Bush fired at Trump, Cruz, Kasich and Rubio. Christie savaged Rubio. Rubio smacked back. And Trump slammed Bush and Cruz.
Two of the state’s former GOP governors, John H. Sununu and Judd Gregg, said the most important outcomes may be the size of Trump’s expected victory and how the other candidates place.
If Trump does not win big, it will be written off as meaningless, said Sununu, who has not endorsed a candidate.
Meanwhile, much is at stake for the “establishment” contenders. A good showing could change a campaign from being deemed lifeless to “becoming competitive,” Gregg told reporters at a breakfast in Manchester hosted by Bloomberg Politics.
Gregg predicted the most likely beneficiaries of such a boost could be Kasich or Bush, whom Gregg has endorsed.
In a Tuesday morning appearance on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Trump pointed out that he attracted thousands of people to a rally the night before despite a nasty snowstorm. “I feel good. I feel good,” he said.
The Democratic side was hardly harmonious as Clinton sharpened herattacks on Sanders. He has criticized Clinton repeatedly for her long ties to Wall Street and her acceptance of campaign contributions and personal speaking fees from major financial firms.
On Monday, Clinton tried to turn the tables, portraying Sanders as hypocritical because he had accepted “about $200,000” from Wall Street firms through the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver called that suggestion “false” and “beyond preposterous.”
Early Tuesday, Clinton and her daughter Chelsea arrived at a polling location at Parker Varney School in Manchester to greet supporters and voters.
“This is a great process, and as I’ve said over the past couple days we’re going to keep working literally until the last vote is cast and counted, and we’re going to go from there,” Clinton said.
Clinton’s husband, Bill Clinton, effectively hurled the kitchen sink at Sanders in a speech Sunday, accusing Sanders’s followers of sexism and his campaign of fabricated attacks. But the former president showed considerable restraint Monday and described his weekend outburst as the emotions of a worried spouse.
“The hotter this election gets, the more I wish I was just a former president and, just for a few months, not the spouse of the next one,” he said. “I have to be careful what I say.”
The Clinton family made an all-out push to secure votes in New Hampshire, a state that has fueled comebacks for both Bill and Hillary in past campaigns.
“It’s going to be a race to the finish,” Hillary Clinton said.
“We are running a very radical campaign because we are telling the American people the truth,” Sanders said at a midday rally in downtown Manchester.
For the Republicans, the character of the race appeared to change over the weekend after a debate in which Rubio faltered in the face of stinging barbs from Christie.
Cruz, who spent the end of his Iowa campaign in a rhetorical splatter-fight with Trump, closed out his New Hampshire tour with only sparing mention of his rivals.
But he appeared to be laying the groundwork for a debate over women in the armed forces once the campaign moves to South Carolina, which has a large military presence and holds its GOP primary Feb. 20.
New Hampshire polls have shown Cruz, Rubio, Kasich and Bush in a jumble for second place behind Trump, with Christie lagging in sixth place.
Eilperin reported from Washington. Jose A. DelReal in Portsmouth, Jenna Johnson in Concord, Sean Sullivan in Concord, Michael Kranish in Plaistow, Abby Phillip, Anne Gearan and Karen Tumulty in Manchester, David Weigel in Barrington, and Ed O’Keefe in Nashua contributed to this report.