NH Primary: Mitt Romney the Clear Front-Runner



In what is expected to be a record Republican primary, Mitt Romney started off with an edge over his rivals in the first handful of votes cast today in New Hampshire.

The small village of Dixville Notch, population nine, kicked off the nation’s first primaries this morning. Two of the town’s residents voted for Romney and two went in favor of Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who has put all his campaign efforts into the Granite state.

Romney, who owns a vacation home in New Hampshire, is the clear front-runner in a primary that is expected to drive a record number of voters to the polls. Twelve delegates are up for grabs in today’s race.

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner estimates that 250,000 ballots will be cast in today’s Republican race, breaking the previous record of nearly 240,000 votes in 2008.

Election officials said turnout was relatively light but steady in the morning, though that could change later in the day.

“I just hope the turnout’s going to happen,” Manchester City Clerk Matt Normand told the New Hampshire Union Leader, referring to Gardner’s prediction.

Light snow flakes fell across Manchester — the focal point of campaigns — but weather was not expected to deter voters.

A scrum of supporters and reporters surrounded candidates as they worked the polling sites in the state’s largest city. At the Webster school, Romney and Newt Gingrich were engulfed by a storm of cameras as two reporters were pushed to the ground in the media circus. Security kept the press behind barricades to allow voters to enter the polling station.

Rick Santorum was also scheduled to attend but staffers said they changed plans when they saw “the mob.” Romney’s security team quickly whisked the former governor away after he briefly intermingled with the crowd.

Today’s primary is especially important for Huntsman, and could be a make-or-break event for the self-proclaimed underdog. His Our Destiny political action committee has spent the most money on advertisement in New Hampshire, hoping to draw in more moderate conservatives and the independent voters who make up a significant chunk of the electorate and can vote in the primaries.

In recent days, President Obama’s former ambassador to China has attempted to put a positive spin on the main point of criticism against him: that he served under a Democratic president whom is now hoping to meet in a general election.

“He [Romney] is a person who wants to put politics first. For me it’s country first,” Huntsman said in a CNN interview this morning.

As for where his campaign goes after New Hampshire, Huntsman gave a rather cryptic answer: “If we can exceed the expectations set up by the pundit class, we’re going to be just fine.”

Romney is the clear front-runner in the race. He has held double-digit leads in every New Hampshire poll since April, except one, and is ahead of his rivals by a wide margin. The race, experts say, is really for a second-place finish. Paul has so far been hanging strong in the polls but Huntsman has quickly caught up in recent days.

But the real trouble for Romney, which has been exacerbated in New Hampshire, lies in his rivals’ attacking his record at venture capital group Bain. Romney aggravated the situation Monday by giving them a soundbyte that has been turned into a cellphone ringtone by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.

He told a crowd, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.” Even though he was talking about how individuals can fire their insurance companies if they don’t like them, the quote quickly became fodder for his competitors.

Huntsman played to Republican concerns about such quotes being dissected by Democrats if Romney is elected the GOP presidential candidate.

“Listen, if you’re going to make statements like that, you become pretty much unelectable,” Huntsman told reporters today. “Because if it isn’t a Republican, it’s going to be the Chicago campaign machine with a billion dollars at their sails that’s going to take after comments like that.”

Perry, who skipped New Hampshire after the debates this weekend and is campaigning in South Carolina, today likened companies such as Bain Capital — without saying its name — to “vultures” who sit on a tree limb, swoop down to eat the carcasses and leave the skeleton behind.

“Allowing these companies to come in and loot the, loot people’s jobs, loot their pensions, loot their ability to take care of their families and I will suggest they’re just vultures,” Perry said at a townhall in Fort Mill, S.C. “They’re vultures that sitting out there on the tree limb waiting for the company to get sick and then they swoop in, they eat the carcass. They leave with that and they leave the skeleton.”

Perry’s son Griffin, who often serves as a surrogate for his father on the road and has not been shy about voicing his opinions about other presidential candidates, jumped into the fray today with a tweet criticizing Romney.

“Mitt Romney knows how to lead,” he wrote. “Lead people straight out the door with a pink slip.”

But Romney found some sympathy among others, namely Paul who defended his rival’s statement in an interview with ABC News’ Jonathan Karl.

“I think they’re wrong,” Paul said of Romney’s critics. “I think they’re totally misunderstanding the way the market works. They are either just demogoging or they don’t have the vaguest idea how the market works.”

Santorum told ABC News’ Jake Tapper that Romney’s comment sends the wrong message but he also cut his rival some slack.

“I am not too sure that is a very good message to a lot of folks out there,” he said today. “It was certainly an inarticulate way of phrasing what he wanted to phrase, but it’s a little bit of a gotcha.”

{ABC News/Matzav.com Newscenter}