WASHINGTON - Voters in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire are casting ballots Tuesday in the Democratic primary as candidates look to build early momentum in the race to oppose President Donald Trump in the November national election.
Just after midnight, voters in Dixville Notch made the first selections in the state, with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg getting two votes in the Democratic primary, followed by one vote each for Sen. Bernie Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
In a curious twist, Bloomberg, who in his political career has been a Democrat, Republican and independent, also got a write-in vote as a Republican. Thus far, the billionaire has focused his campaigning on states later in the voting calendar and with a huge emphasis on television advertising.
Polls in most areas open later in the morning, and results are likely Tuesday evening.
The contest in New Hampshire has taken on added consequence in the aftermath of a split vote in last week's Iowa caucuses that were remembered mostly for the agonizingly slow release of the final outcome that was linked to a wrongly coded app used in collecting vote totals from throughout the farm state.
In the end, Buttigieg edged Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, in Iowa.
Who's in the lead
Pre-election polls showed Sanders ahead of Buttigieg in New Hampshire. Three other contenders are also hoping for a good showing in Tuesday's vote: former Vice President Joe Biden and Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, all of whom trailed the leaders in Iowa.
Small, mostly white New Hampshire is hardly reflective of the racial and ethnic diversity of the United States as a whole, but its importance every four years at the start of the presidential election campaign is recognized by both Democrats and Republicans.
The New Hampshire winner could gain an edge in the next two Democratic contests, in Nevada and South Carolina, which are scheduled for the last two Saturdays in February, ahead of 14 states voting on March 3.
Meanwhile, Trump staged a Monday night rally for his supporters in the snow-covered state where he criticized the Democratic field.
"They're all fighting each other. They're all going after each other," Trump said. "They don't know what they're doing."
U.S. Democrats say their chief aim in the long slog of state contests to pick a nominee to oppose Trump is to find the most likely choice who can defeat him. All of the Democratic challengers defeat Trump in hypothetical national matchups, but the margins have edged closer in recent surveys, with Trump taking credit for a strong U.S. economy and winning acquittal last week in the Senate on impeachment charges brought against him by Democrats in the House of Representatives.
All the Democrats are claiming they are best equipped to take on Trump.
"Let me start by asking you to form in your mind an image that I always ask voters to picture, because I picture it every day," Buttigieg told his supporters at a Monday rally. "And it's the image of what it's going to be like the first time that the sun comes up over the mountains and lakes of New Hampshire and Donald Trump is no longer the president of the United States."
Sanders made his pitch at an early Monday rally, saying, "We are the strongest campaign to defeat Trump because of the nature of our campaign," funded from a large network of small-dollar donors, which he contended was a sharp contrast with his rivals who have accepted contributions from wealthy donors.
"Unlike some of my opponents, I don't have contributions from the CEOs of the pharmaceutical industry or Wall Street tycoons," Sanders said in a clear attack on Buttigieg, who has accepted such donations and says he needs them to build a national political operation.
Warren retooled her campaign message after a third-place finish in Iowa and urged her supporters to not "look backwards."
"Our democracy hangs in the balance. So it comes to you, New Hampshire, to decide," she said. "When there's this much fear, when there's this much on the line, do we crouch down? Do we cower? Do we back up? Or do we fight back? Me -- I'm fighting back."
At a speech Monday night, Biden, making his third run for the Democratic presidential nomination, argued that Trump inherited a robust economy from former President Barack Obama, when Biden was his vice president.
"Trump's going to tell us over and over again the economy is on the ballot this year," Biden will say. "It sure is. And I'm going to make sure he understands it's on the ballot because working class and middle class people are getting clobbered. But something else is on the ballot. Character is on the ballot. The character of this country is on the ballot."
Klobuchar, who finished fifth in Iowa and won praise for her performance at a Friday night candidates debate, said she is seeing a "surge of support" in New Hampshire. Two polls had her moving ahead of Biden and Warren into third behind Sanders and Buttigieg.
"A lot of people did not think that I was going to make it through the summer or make it to that debate stage, but I more than made it to the debate stage. And since that debate, our campaign has been surging," she said Monday.
In Iowa, state Democratic officials said Buttigieg took 14 of the 41 delegates up for grabs to the party's July national nominating convention in Milwaukee, followed by Sanders with 12, Warren with eight, Biden six and Klobuchar one.