The voters of New Hampshire streamed to the polls in record numbers yesterday in a primary election that could write a new page in American political history as Senator Barack Obama sought a victory against his closest rival Hillary Clinton that would make him the favourite to seize the Democratic Party nomination for the White House.
While the state-by-state primary process is only just beginning, Mr Obama appears to be harnessing a roaring tide of popular enthusiasm that, if uninterrupted, could bear him to a quick coronation as the Democratic nominee and a shot at becoming the first African-American behind the Oval Office desk.
High suspense meanwhile lingered for Republicans where John McCain, the iconoclastic senator from Arizona, was seeking to repeat his victory of 2000 to secure first-in-the-pack status, as the focus for both parties turns to the next primaries later this month in South Carolina, Michigan and Florida.
The predicted record turn-out was explained not just by spring-like weather but also by a tangible atmosphere of thrill and anticipation that has overtaken this presidential derby since the Iowa caucuses last Thursday produced decisive wins by Mr Obama and, among Republicans, by Mike Huckabee.
Mr Obama, in particular, has emerged as the sensation candidate of 2008, energising supporters, filling venues to bursting point and reinforcing the momentum conferred upon him by his Iowa win. No Iowa bounce has materialised for Mr Huckabee, however. Challenging Mr McCain's hopes instead has been Mitt Romney, the smooth-talking former businessman and Governor of Massachusetts.
The first hints of an Obama avalanche came from two northern hamlets, which traditionally open and close voting immediately after midnight on primary day. Of the 46 ballots cast in Dixville Notch and Hart's Location, 16 went to Mr Obama and three each to Mrs Clinton and former senator John Edwards. For the Republicans, Mr McCain took 10 votes over five for Mr Huckabee and three for Mr Romney.
Voters were queueing at polling stations even before first light, collectively to recommend to the rest of the nation which runners from each party are best fit to replace George Bush at a time of war in Iraq, of oil at $100 a barrel and profound popular distrust of Washington. As many as 500,000 New Hampshire residents half the entire population were expected to participate, far more than in 2004. Such was the high turnout, particularly among Democrat voters, that some precincts reported a shortage of ballots.
Mrs Clinton and her daughter Chelsea poured coffee for voters and precinct staff before dawn at a Manchester elementary school. She deployed an army of 6,000 volunteers to urge supporters to vote.
"We're going to work all day to get the vote out," Mrs Clinton said, showing none of the crushing strain that is now bearing down on her and her team. Hers has been an almost impossible task trying to turn back the Obama tide in the five short days since Iowa. She will leave this state determined to unpick the Obama mythology and regain her footing before the Super Tuesday primaries in 20 states on 5 February.
Her options include shaking up her campaign staff and spending steeply on negative advertising against Mr Obama. But reversing the flow of support to his camp will be tough. "I really wanted to vote for Hillary," admitted Anna Helbling who was out early in her Manchester precinct to vote along with her husband, Adam. "But I think Obama has a really good chance against a Republican rival."
Elsewhere in Manchester, two Republican foes, Mr Huckabee and the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, collided as they arrived to cast their votes and smile for cameras at the Brookside Congregational Church. Mr Huckabee, quick with humour, asked Mr Giuliani for his vote. "We get along beautifully on the trail," he said. "No animosity." Mr Romney turned up at the same location just a few minutes later.
Almost half the voters in New Hampshire are independents and a high turn-out yesterday was always reckoned to be critical for Mr Obama, who was pitching to win support even from independents who have previously voted in Republican primaries. His campaign here, as in Iowa, has also been fuelled by an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm from younger voters.
Mr McCain also arrived in New Hampshire optimistic about his chances exactly because of the unusually high numbers of independents. He has rekindled his love affair with the state, in spite of stiff competition, notably from Mr Romney who attacked him persistently, notably on immigration.
Going out of New Hampshire, the picture on the Republican side remains as puzzling as ever. Mr Huckabee had far fewer evangelical voters here to count on but is polling in first place in South Carolina, the first big state to vote. Oddly missing here and in Iowa also has been Mr Giuliani. He, however, is betting he can win Florida on 29 January and then seize several other states on Super Tuesday.
This leaves the Republican Party establishment at a loss as to which candidate it should unite behind. Nor is that equation necessarily easy for the Democrats. Mrs Clinton must now urgently protect herself against a rapid defection of Democrat grandees to the accelerating Obama bandwagon.
Why we are backing Barack
Sara Harness, 18
I saw Obama speak. He's really passionate and I think he can accomplish change by working with both parties. Hillary strikes me as very fake. Everything she says seems scripted.
Sam Schlepphorst, 17
I agree with Obama's policy on the Iraq war. We really have to leave soon. My school held a mock election and Obama was the overwhelming winner. I understand where they're coming from when they say he has not got enough experience but I think it's time for a fresh start.
Max Lanocha, 17
I was really drawn to Obama's campaign after I saw him speak in September. I also saw Hillary Clinton but he seems the most genuine, with the best chance of making things happen for the better in Washington.
Ken Nielsen, 58
Obama's got an interesting history. He was a community organiser, a law school professor and a senator. I've liked what Obama's had to say... but I've been leaning towards Edwards.
Judy Nielsen, 50
My head says Hillary but my heart says Obama. My concern is that she's not electable. The worst thing that Bush did is bring his father's whole crowd to the White House. Will Hillary bring Bill's old crowd? So far Obama has not really moved me. But any one of them would be far better that what we have now.
Ross Charpentier, 29
We both believe in Obama. I saw a documentary a few months ago called The Devil Came on Horseback, about the genocide in Darfur. He made a speech in which he promised to do something about that and for me he's the only candidate I've heard voice an opinion and that's a very strong point for me.
Shannon Aubourg, 27
I'm ready for change, and I think that if he is elected we will see many changes. I want someone in the White House who is really honest and stands behind what they say. I feel he will be really different to other politicians.Reuse content