MONTPELIER, Vt. -- Vermont voters turned out early in high numbers Tuesday for a rare August primary, picking candidates for governor, U.S. Senate, U.S. House and statewide offices.
A lively five-way race for the Democratic nomination for governor topped the ballot, and was too close to call in early returns.
Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy easily defeated political newcomer Daniel Freilich to win the Democratic nomination in his bid for a seventh term.
The primary also featured a three-way Republican contest for Vermont's lone seat in the House of Representatives, which is currently held by Democratic Rep. Peter Welch. Former talk radio host Paul Beaudry, of Swanton; Springfield businessman Keith Stern and retired Rutland businessman John M. Mitchell are seeking the GOP nomination to run against Welch in the Nov. 2 general election.
Contested races for lieutenant governor, secretary of state and auditor were also on the ballot.
Usually, Vermont holds its primary elections in September. This year, the date was moved up to accommodate voting by troops abroad.
A new federal law -- the Military and Overseas Voter Act -- requires states to provide 45 days before a general election for ballots to be sent to overseas voters and back. Vermont officials said that if they stuck with Sept. 14 as the primary date, it wouldn't have allowed enough time to get ballots printed, into the hands of overseas voters and back for counting.
Some feared that could spell low turnout among the state's 440,000 voters in Tuesday's primary elections, which are the first step in the party process for choosing candidates for the general election. That didn't appear to be the case, though.
Mother Nature helped: With blue skies and temperatures in the 70s, weather was no reason to stay home from the polls.
"Turnout is significantly higher than I have ever seen for a primary," said Randolph Town Clerk Joyce Mazzucco, who has held the job for 12 1/2 years.
In Montpelier, a steady stream of voters arrived in the first two hours after polls opened there at 7 a.m., said City Clerk Charlotte Hoyt.
Those who voted said the date change was well-publicized by elections officials and the candidates.
"They advertised it everywhere," said retired teacher Irene Gora, 84, of Montpelier. "It was well-known."
Vermont has an open primary without advance party registration. That means a voter doesn't register as a party member, but selects one party's ballot -- and selects only from that one -- in the primary.
The race for the Democratic nomination stems from Gov. Jim Douglas' decision not to seek re-election, which opened the seat to all comers.
State Sen. Susan Bartlett, Google executive Matt Dunne, Secretary of State Deb Markowitz, state Sen. Doug Racine and state Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin are the Democrats in the race -- for now. After Tuesday's balloting, there will be only one standing, and that person will go up against Republican Brian Dubie in the general election.
Dubie, now the lieutenant governor, had no primary challenge.