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In Romney Stronghold, Rivals Woo Granite State Voters Headed to Polls

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January 10, 2012: Scott Trachemontagne adjusts a light in the "Ballot Room" of the Balsams Hotel in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire. (Reuters)

Mitt Romney has a small lead in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation Republican primary after two tiny towns cast their ballots shortly after midnight Tuesday. But the early morning votes are merely a foreshadow to a busy day in the Granite State as the GOP presidential candidates flit around the state to make their final case to voters.

The first five-minute voting session kicked off in the tiny hamlet of Dixville Notch, whose residents are famous for being the first to cast their ballots each election season.

Romney and Jon Huntsman tied with two votes each in the town. Newt Gingrich and  Ron Paul each got one. President Obama got three votes. 

The small town only has nine registered voters.The nine residents who cast their ballots include three registered Republicans and two registered Democrats. Four other voters haven't declared a party.

In the town of Hart's Location, which has a population of 41, Romney gained a small lead.

He received five votes, Paul, the Texas congressman, received four votes, Huntsman two votes and Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Gingrich each received one, according to WMUR-TV. Obama received 10 votes.

That gave Romney a total seven votes, while Paul picked up five votes, Huntsman had four votes, Gingrich two votes and Perry a lone vote. Obama had 13 in his uncontested race.

Both villages opened their polling places at midnight, a tradition that began so railway workers could vote before their early morning shifts. The rest of the state started voting at 6 a.m. ET and have until 8 p.m. to make their decision. The secretary of state estimated 250,000 people will have vote in New Hampshire's GOP primary and 75,000 will cast a ballot in the Democratic primary when all is said and done.

After a close result last week in the Iowa caucuses, in which Romney bested former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum by a mere eight votes, there's still plenty at stake for the field.

Romney has held onto a commanding lead in the polls, though many voters have remained undecided until now.

Huntsman, after skipping Iowa, is pinning his hopes on a strong finish here, while Santorum looks to capitalize on his near-tie last week with Romney. Polls also show Paul has solid support in New Hampshire.

Gingrich, though farther back in the pack after a fourth-place finish in Iowa, has increased his attacks on Romney. He told Fox News on Tuesday that he wants to place in the top three or four and then move to South Carolina where there will be "a decisive showdown" with the former Massachusetts governor.

"The biggest story today is going to be how much Governor Romney falls short of any kind of reasonable expectation," Gingrich said, predicting Romney has been roughed up in the state where he owns a home and has campaigned for several years. "I think it's not going to be much of a fortress."

Perry, meanwhile, is skipping New Hampshire and banking his struggling campaign on a surge in South Carolina and it's first-in-the-South primary scheduled for Jan. 21.

Romney, while still the front-runner, has faced increased scrutiny on the campaign trail of his years heading the venture capital firm Bain Capital. He opened himself to criticism when he declared Monday, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me." 

The comment referred to health care consumers and insurance companies as Romney said he wants the freedom to pick his service providers rather than have a national mandate. Romney later accused his rivals of taking his words out of context.

And while Gingrich has strongly condemned Romney for a pro-Romney super PAC's negative television ads in Iowa against Gingrich, on Tuesday, he defended his rival from the attacks, saying, "Of course, it was taken out of context."

"He likes having a right to choose, and that's probably what he meant to say," Gingrich said, adding that the "sentiment is exactly right," but it points to why he would be a better candidate against Obama.

"I think I can debate better than he can. I think I'm more careful with that kind of example. Imagine if he had said that in a debate with Barack Obama. What a mess that would have been," he said.

Santorum too said he "wasn't going to take the bait," and pile on Romney for a comment that was clearly taken out of context.  

"Did he say it articulately? No, but it's pretty clear what he meant. I'm not going to play 'gotcha' politics. I don't want people to play it on me and I'm not going to play it on anyone else," he said.

But that doesn't mean Gingrich, Santorum or any other candidate is going to let up on Romney as they try to emerge as his main rival in the South Carolina. Gingrich argues that Romney should hold a press conference to explain what his private equity company, Bain Capital, did to help revitalize floundering firms.

Santorum said rather than focus on Romney's work at Bain, he's targeting his role as a public servant. Santorum said his economic plan is superior to Romney's because it "revitalizes that very critical manufacturing sector."

"That's going to be the difference in this race -- we believe in bottom-up," not top-down solutions, he told Fox News.

Nonetheless, the candidates are hoping for a good show so they are positioned to challenge the frontrunner, with Santorum calling a second-place finish "one our dreams, to be honest with you."

Santorum said as long as he finishes somewhere in the pack, he's ready to go to the next battle.

"Obviously South Carolina, we are involved there, we are running ads there, we have a big organization there," he said.