High stakes as New Hampshire holds key White House primary

Democrats voted Tuesday in a high-stakes primary in New Hampshire as leftist Bernie Sanders and youthful challenger Pete Buttigieg fought for pole position in the race for who faces President Donald Trump in November’s election.

Tensions have risen steadily as people in the Granite State, notoriously independent-minded and astute voters, headed to polls across the northeastern battleground with just 1.3 million people. But the state plays a hugely influential role in the American political landscape.

New Hampshire always hosts the nation’s first primary, eight days after Iowa kicked off the nomination process, and it could narrow the Democratic field of 11 current candidates.

White House hopefuls have been courting votes in the state’s small cities, rolling farm country, lake-side towns and snow-covered mountain hamlets, seeking a spark that could ignite momentum that carries them to the Democratic nomination.

“There’s a certain amount of pride to being here,” said Tom Tillotson, managing the midnight vote.

“We take this seriously,” he told AFP. “We were humbled and honoured to be… basically the starting gun for the primary election process.”

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In a surprise, billionaire Michael Bloomberg won in Dixville Notch with one Republican and two Democratic votes. Buttigieg and Sanders each earned one vote.

At a polling station in the gymnasium of Northwest Elementary School in Manchester, which opened its doors in the early morning, dozens of people took their ballots into booths behind the blue and red plastic curtains adorned with an image of the Statue of Liberty.

Buttigieg, wearing a shirt and tie and a black winter coat, was out and about early greeting voters and smiling for selfies with them with snow in the background.

Former Vice president Joe Biden urged people to get out and vote. “Today’s the day,” he tweeted in the early morning.

As New Hampshire endures its quadrennial close-up with candidates making last-gasp campaign swings, an anxious Democratic Party is struggling to find the right path to defeating Trump.

Will it be the “political revolution” espoused by Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist? Or the more moderate tacks from either Buttigieg, a 38-year-old former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, or Biden?

Complicating Tuesday’s vote, independents – who outnumber both Democrats and Republicans in the state – can vote in either primary, potentially tipping the scales in a tight race.

Looming over the primary, Trump jetted to New Hampshire on Monday night aiming to steal the limelight with a large Manchester rally.

“Remember this: Washington Democrats have never been more extreme,” Trump told cheering supporters.

“We are saving your health care while the socialist Democrats are trying to take away your health care.”

The remark appeared aimed at Sanders, buoyed by a strong showing in Iowa last week and a poll that claimed he was the national frontrunner for the first time.

The survey also showed Bloomberg – who is skipping Tuesday’s contest – vaulting into third place behind a struggling Biden.

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