DURHAM, United States (AFP) – US Democrats braced for a volatile, consequential primary on Tuesday in New Hampshire as leftist Bernie Sanders and youthful challenger Pete Buttigieg fight for pole position in the race for who faces Donald Trump in November’s presidential election.
Tensions have risen steadily as Granite Staters, notoriously independent-minded and astute voters, headed to polls across the northeastern battleground with just 1.3 million people – but plays a hugely influential role in the American political landscape.
New Hampshire 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 a presidential run that carries them to the Democratic nomination.
Tiny Dixville Notch – population five – traditionally votes first at one minute after midnight.
“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.”
In a surprise, billionaire Michael Bloomberg won in Dixville Notch with one Republican and two Democratic votes.
Buttigieg and Sanders each earned one vote.
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 former vice president Joe 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.
Firing up his supporters with promises to slash inequalities and overhaul the US healthcare system, the 78-year-old Sanders maintained a healthy lead in New Hampshire, where he won the 2016 primary by a landslide.
“Tomorrow is an historically important day,” the Vermont senator told a Durham rally of 7,500 people.
“Let’s win this thing, let’s transform America!”
As attendees roared, “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” The Strokes band began their performance with the Talking Heads classic “Burning Down the House.”
The rally showcased Sanders’s growing stature, particularly among young voters.
“We don’t really have much of a left-wing politics in this country. Bernie’s kind of revitalized that,” Alex Pomerantz, 29, a data manager from New York who came to New Hampshire to canvass for Bernie, told AFP.
“The young people are blown away by the movement that he’s started.”
The RealClearPolitics polling average showed Sanders at 28.8 percent in New Hampshire, tailed on 22.3 percent by moderate rival Buttigieg, whose Iowa win boosted his presidential bid.
A late surge also lifted the fortunes of Amy Klobuchar, with two new polls showing the senator from Minnesota jumping past heavyweights Biden and Elizabeth Warren to notch 14 percent support.
Calling it a “dramatic shift,” a new Quinnipiac University poll showed Sanders overtaking Biden for the first time in the national nomination race, attracting 25 percent support against 17 percent for Biden – shaken by a fourth-place finish in Iowa.
The poll also showed Bloomberg surging to 15 percent support. The increase suggest a possible upset when New York’s former mayor – who is skipping the first four nominating contests – throws himself fully into the race.
Bloomberg – who is focusing on March 3’s Super Tuesday, when 14 states vote – has spent a record $260 million of his personal fortune on his campaign, to Sanders’ fury who accuses him of trying to “buy the election.”
In a sign of the high stakes, the Democratic race has taken a bad-tempered turn in recent days with Sanders and Buttigieg trading barbs, and Biden and Klobuchar sharpening their attacks on both frontrunners.
As Buttigieg has risen from practical anonymity, he has also faced intensifying criticism for his lack of national experience and supposed difficulty connecting with black voters, a key demographic.