What to Expect from the New Hampshire Primary As Voters Cast Ballots for GOP

New Hampshire voters have begun casting their ballots in the nation's first primary today, and Mitt Romney is fighting to maintain his lead in the Republican presidential race against his rivals who are branding him as a corporate villain.

Sparks flew over the weekend during two televised debates, as the Republican contenders attacked Romney for his big business pedigree in an effort to knock the candidate off his perch atop the GOP field.

The Live Free or Die State is different from all of the other primaries in January because it's open to independents, who make up more than 40% of the state's electorate. Its voters are also some of the least religious in the nation, unlike the social conservatives who will dominate in South Carolina. As such, the arguments that work in New Hampshire will translate well in the general election. Here are some key areas to watch for in tonight's primary:

1. Mitt Romney: All major polls indicate that Romney will be today's winner, but the big question is by how much. Despite the blows he took during the weekend debates, Romney still commanded a 20-point lead over projected second-place finisher Ron Paul (and incidentally, has the most Facebook fans of all the GOP candidates at more than 1.2 million). Anything more than 40% would be comfortable for Romney, and Mark Halperin says even 38% would give Romney his full bounce. But, if Romney receives below 35%, questions will continue to swirl about his ability to excite the Republican base. According to "Morning" Joe Scarborough, "I think 29, 28 is a nightmare."

2. Jon Huntsman: The bigger question is who will capture second place. Hunstman appears to have the momentum, but most polls show Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) still leading by a handful of percentage points. Experts predict that Paul's New Hampshire race may be faltering as Huntsman closes in. 

Huntsman received a boost this weekend during a strong performance during both debates. According to Jon Avalon, "Again and again, Huntsman took the risk of honesty and directness and was rewarded for it. He holds strong positions on fiscal conservative issues, rightly pointing out that he’s the only candidate to back the Paul Ryan plan from the start. But he did not try to fit in with the ideological clique — he said what he thought was right and seemed both reasonable and presidential as a result. It was refreshing.”

Huntsman is painting himself as someone who has served the nation proudly and the leader who will unify the country and bring Democrats and Republicans together. Voters will have to judge Huntsman on his record.

3. Battle for fourth and fifth place: Texas Gov. Rick Perry is consistently dead last in the polls, but Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich are neck-and-neck for fourth and fifth place, locked in a mini-battle for momentum going into the South Carolina primary in just over a week. The latest polls show Santorum with a slight edge (11.5% to Gingrich's 10.3%), but both candidates' fate is still up in the air. Santorum is likely to outperform the field in socially conservative South Carolina, so a New Hampshire momentum swing is important for Gingrich to remain relevant. 

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

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