New Hampshire voters trudged through snow glinting in the sunshine on Tuesday for the second key test of the 2016 White House race, with Donald Trump chasing victory and Hillary Clinton looking to narrow the gap on local hero Bernie Sanders.
Once every four years the nation's eyes focus like laser beams on little, largely rural New
Hampshire, which holds the first state primaries after the Iowa caucuses kick off the presidential nomination process.
The proud northeastern state, home to just 1.3 million people, sets the tone for the primaries -- and could shake out a crowded Republican field as the arch-conservative Senator Ted Cruz and establishment candidates led by Marco Rubio battle for second place behind the front runner Trump.
In the picturesque town of Canterbury, population 2,000-3,000, sub-freezing temperatures and a thick coat of snow on the ground greeted early rising voters who stopped by the polling station at the town hall before heading to work.
Historically, for the past 60 years or so, the vast majority of candidates who ended up winning the White House had triumphed in their party's primary in the so-called Granite State.
So New Hampshire punches well above its weight when it comes to presidential politics, as it culls weak White House hopefuls.
A RealClearPolitics poll average shows Sanders -- who has called for nothing short of a "political revolution" -- leading 53.3 percent to 40.5 percent for Clinton in the state. Trump soars ahead in the Republican camp on 31.2 percent -- with no other candidate above 15 percent.
But everything remains in play in New Hampshire due to a high number of registered independents, who can choose to vote in either party, along with up to 30 percent of voters still undecided until recently.
At all five polling stations visited by AFP early Tuesday, officials described the turnout as "very steady."
Go out and vote
The New York billionaire has energised broad swaths of blue-collar Americans, angry about economic difficulties and frustrated at what they see as their country losing its stature in the world.
But Trump needs to turn his poll lead into a convincing win in New Hampshire if he is to recover from the embarrassment of finishing second behind Cruz in Iowa.
"Look, you know, I like to win," Trump told MSNBC as voting got underway. "I mean, that's what I do, I win. I didn't go in it to lose."
New Hampshire vote today - MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 9, 2016
The rest of the Republican pack has been fighting it out, hoping a strong showing can reinvigorate them for South Carolina and Nevada, the next stops on the long primary road.
A poor result will likely rupture the presidential dreams for 2016 for former and current governors Jeb Bush, John Kasich and Chris Christie.
And Rubio in particular is hoping to match or better his third-place finish in Iowa, despite taking a drubbing in Saturday's debate when Christie eviscerated the first-term Florida senator for robotically repeating the same talking points.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) February 9, 2016
Run for her money
On the Democratic front, Clinton is looking to confound polls that predict a large victory for her insurgent challenger Sanders -- a transplanted New Yorker who represents neighbouring Vermont as a US senator and is big on erasing economic inequality, calling himself a democratic socialist.
"You know, I just love the way New Hampshire does this," Clinton said as she and her daughter Chelsea greeted cheering, sign-waving campaign volunteers at a school in Manchester.
"I like the way the people of New Hampshire take it so seriously."
They're counting on you, New Hampshire. Go vote!https://t.co/KlxS5wNrBH
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) February 9, 2016
Clinton won Iowa by a hair, and remains the overall favourite to win the Democratic nomination.
But Sanders is keen to show his campaign can give the former secretary of state a run for her money deep into election season.
New Hampshire, if turnout is high today, I believe we will win. I urge you to come out and vote today. Thank you.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) February 9, 2016
Skora, the auto mechanic, said it is a thrill to take part in the first-in-the-nation primary.
"It's always meant something. Born and bred here in New Hampshire, it's nice to be able to see all the candidates up close and personal."