MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — With Mitt Romney the overwhelming favorite, his five Republican opponents hoped to chip away at his lead in Tuesday's New Hampshire primary and finish well enough to prove they're still in the race to challenge him again in South Carolina and Florida.
A narrower than expected win for Romney in the nation's first presidential primary — or a surprisingly strong finish from one of his rivals — could weaken the front-runner. Either would be played up as more evidence that Republicans still have their doubts about Romney, who barely squeezed out a win in the Iowa caucuses.
Those doubts were on display in the first ballots cast in the contest, in Dixville Notch, the tiny New Hampshire village that traditionally votes at midnight. Romney and Jon Huntsman each received two of the six votes; Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul received one vote apiece.
"Dixville Notch might be a harbinger in this race," Huntsman, a former Utah governor who skipped Iowa to pin his hopes on a decent showing in New Hampshire, said early Tuesday.
The rest of New Hampshire voters go to the polls Tuesday after receiving months of attention from the Republican candidates and witnessing an increasingly sharp tone in the intraparty struggle for the nomination.
Romney suffered an ill-timed, foot-in-mouth moment the day before — declaring he liked to be able to fire people — and his rivals were quick to pounce. But they pulled back from their attacks Tuesday, noting that Romney's clumsy quote actually referred to peoples' right to ditch their health care companies for better ones.
The candidates seemed eager to present a kinder face to voters finally heading to the polls.
"I'm not going to play gotcha politics," said Rick Santorum, who rocketed to prominence with a virtual tie with Romney in Iowa.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich used Romney's comments on Monday to leverage his criticism of the GOP front-runner as a former corporate raider who enriched himself by looting companies and laying off workers. On Tuesday, he said it was "totally unfair" to take Romney's remark out of its health care context and he wouldn't do so.
A former governor of neighboring Massachusetts who owns a vacation home in New Hampshire, Romney has long enjoyed a substantial lead in the polls here.
"If I am president of the United States, I will not forget New Hampshire," Romney said during a Monday night rally in Bedford, hinting at the impact of Tuesday's contest while surrounded on by his wife, children and grandchildren.
None of Romney's rivals has proved to be a consistent and credible threat to the former Massachusetts governor. The latest to emerge from the pack is Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who used a passion for social conservatism and a populist economic message to come within eight votes of Romney in Iowa's caucuses.
In New Hampshire, "second place would be a dream come true," Santorum said Monday as he raced through a campaign schedule that spanned more than 14 hours.
New Hampshire, which allows independents to vote in its primary, will help decide whether a candidate with Santorum's focus can appeal to a broader electorate, as would be required in a successful general election. On the other side, Huntsman is relying upon independents and moderate Republicans to fuel a late surge to relevancy.
A former ambassador to China in the Obama administration, Huntsman spent the last 48 hours trying to capitalize on a notable debate exchange with Romney. A relentless critic of President Barack Obama, Romney had criticized Huntsman for serving as an ambassador in the Obama administration. Huntsman countered that he had put his country ahead of partisan politics.
Huntsman, a former Utah governor, aired a new television ad highlighting his call for national unity and adopted a new campaign slogan, borrowing "Country First" from 2008 GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain.
Polls suggested Huntsman may be on the rise, but New Hampshire voters will decide if it it's too little, too late. He could be pushed out of the nomination race if he finishes below third place in the six-man field.
Huntsman told supporters packed into the Exeter Town Hall Monday night to remember one word as they head to the polls Tuesday: "Trust."
There are multiple wild cards, however, including Ron Paul, the 76-year-old Texas congressman who has worked for months to build a strong organization here and enjoys a passionate following. He is sometimes marginalized because of a quirky demeanor and unconventional foreign policy, but he has run a strong second to Romney in the New Hampshire polls for much of the year.
And there's former congressman Gingrich, who may have a tremendous impact on the contest even if he doesn't fare well personally. Picking up on Democratic criticism, Gingrich and his allies have led attacks on Romney's business career that intensified in recent days.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry joined the Romney bashing from South Carolina, where he's been planted for the last week.