New Hampshire at fever pitch as date with history arrives

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The five major Democratic candidates criss-crossed New Hampshire yesterday in a frantic hunt for independent and undecided voters holding the key to the first primary of the presidential election season, whose outcome was wide open as the real polls opened this morning.

On election eve, two questions dominated the contest: could former Vermont governor Howard Dean overhaul John Kerry and pull off an upset win; and who would win the scarcely less important battle for third place, in which the losers might be forced to drop out of the race.

All five, however, are pinning their hopes on this small New England state's reputation for promoting underdogs and producing surprises that transform the nomination battle.

Late polls suggested that anything up to one-fifth of voters had still to make up their minds.

Mr Dean appeared to be putting his recent travails behind him, closing on Mr Kerry. Some weekend polls gave the Massachusetts senator leads of up to 20 per cent, after his surprisingly convincing victory in the Iowa caucuses, which kicked off the nominating season on 19 January.

But a strong second here would put Mr Dean, with a powerful organisation and more money than his rivals, right back in the race.

Mr Kerry said he was taking nothing for granted as he swung through the state. "We're down to the last hours here," he said in Portsmouth. "I'm here to persuade those who remain undecided."

The struggle for the minor places is equally important. Over the past few days, retired general Wesley Clark, who at one point was closing fast on the former front-runner Mr Dean, has slipped back.

And the Connecticut senator, Joe Lieberman, who, like General Clark, skipped the Iowa caucuses to concentrate on New Hampshire, has failed to generate much excitement. Both men are barely in double figures.

But either could benefit from a last-minute surge of support from the same registered independent voters ­ eligible to vote in either party primary ­ who carried Senator John McCain to his stunning win over George Bush in the 2000 Republican primary.

Yesterday, Mr Lieberman admitted that he needs to do better than expected among New Hampshire voters, but predicted his presidential campaign would begin, rather than end, here.

"I need you independents," the Connecticut senator told a boisterous rally here, on the steps of the New Hampshire state house. "The race is very fluid, a lot of voters are still undecided."

The great unknown is John Edwards, the North Carolina senator who has dazzled audiences on the stump with his populist message.

His southern roots, however, are a handicap in a state where three "local" New England candidates are among his opponents.

Some believe Mr Edwards could do what he did in Iowa and come from almost nowhere to finish second. If that happens, he would be well placed when the battle moves next week to midwestern and southern states where his support will be stronger. The fluctuating contest between what is generally considered a very strong field of candidates has state officials predicting a near-record turnout today ­ always assuming that the snow obeys the weather forecasts and holds off until the evening.