Voters will go the polls Tuesday in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire for America's first presidential primary. Public opinion polls show the races for the Democratic and Republican nominations are extraordinarily close, following more than a year of campaigning by a large field of candidates. VOA Correspondent Meredith Buel has details in this report from Exeter, New Hampshire.

Small, picturesque towns like Exeter dot the landscape here in New Hampshire, best known as the first U.S. state where Americans go to the polls to select the Republican and Democratic Party's nominees.

The beautiful, snow-covered landscape provides a pastoral backdrop for a primary election that frequently propels political candidates toward their party's nomination for president.

"The value of the early primaries is precisely to have a slingshot effect, to propel you towards victory in the later primaries," said Allan Lichtman, a professor and presidential historian at American University in Washington.

Victories in the recent Iowa caucuses by the Democratic Senator from Illinois, Barack Obama, and the former Republican governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, have reshaped the race for the White House.

They defeated national frontrunners New York Democratic Senator and former first lady Hillary Clinton and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican.

Unlike voters in larger states with later primaries, voters here in New Hampshire have the opportunity to meet with the candidates in relatively small groups and ask them questions about important issues.

"These people have been studying," said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow and political analyst at the Brookings Institution. "They almost feel that they can not vote for the candidate unless they have personally looked him in his eye and shook his hand."

About 45 percent of New Hampshire's voters are independent, and it is often difficult to predict how they will vote in the primary.

"Independents play a huge role in the New Hampshire primary because they can choose to vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries," said historian Allan Lichtman. "They could be a large segment of the vote in a very small state and a very independent-minded state like New Hampshire."

Here in Exeter two of those independent voters are Linda and John Noon, who have just moved back home after living abroad in Europe.

"Well I am interested to hear what the candidates have to say because I have been living overseas so I need to hear more information. But I am interested in what their ideas are on health care and the war [in Iraq], mainly," said Linda.

This husband and wife say they are both still undecided about who to vote for, but Mr. Noon says he is leaning toward Barack Obama.

"I think of him as someone like [President John F.] Kennedy who was kind of an underdog. I am ready for a change, and I would like to see someone in there who is different," he said.

Polls show Obama, who is campaigning to be the first black man elected as America's president, is succeeding in identifying himself as the Democratic candidate most likely to bring change to policies in Washington.

"Certainly if Obama wins here on Tuesday then it is going to be on to states like South Carolina where there is a large African-American population," said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. "If African-American voters look and see that Obama is for real, that a black candidate can win in two of the whitest states in the country, they are going to take Obama seriously and get on the bandwagon. If that happens, then it is tough to see where Hillary Clinton is going to break through."

For the Republicans, Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher, stunned many analysts by winning the Iowa caucuses.

In New Hampshire, polls say Huckabee currently trails former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Arizona Senator John McCain.

"What is at stake here in New Hampshire on the Republican side is really the contest to be the anti-Huckabee candidate, and John McCain really wants to get in that position and he can with a victory in New Hampshire," said Scala.

So here in Exeter and across New Hampshire voters are preparing to select their candidates for president.

Winning New Hampshire is no guarantee a politician will win his or her party's nomination, but a victory here will provide a boost for any candidate in this year's highly competitive race for the White House.