Following his surprise victory in Iowa, Illinois Senator Barack Obama headed into Tuesday's New Hampshire primary with a lead over Hillary Rodham Clinton, while the Republican battle remained tight, according to polls.
Residents of two small towns cast their initial ballots just after midnight, giving Obama and Republican Senator John McCain early victories.
The votes came as candidates made their last-minute pitches to many of the independents in the "Live Free or Die" state. Nearly half of New Hampshire's voters are neither registered Republicans nor Democrats.
Most of the polls show Obama has at least a double-digit lead over Clinton and former senator and 2004 vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, the CBC's Henry Champ reported Tuesday from Manchester, N.H.
The turn of poll numbers in Obama's favour suggest his mantra of change could be resonating more clearly among the state's voters than Clinton's change-through-experience message.
"Today you can make your voice heard — you can insist that change will come," Obama told a crowd Tuesday morning at Dartmouth College. "The American people have decided for the first time in a very long time to cast aside cynicism, to cast aside fear, to cast aside doubts."
A resounding victory in New Hampshire would pave the way for the freshman Illinois senator to emerge from the state a clear favourite in the Democratic race ahead of critical votes in South Carolina, Nevada and Florida later this month.
A series of states will hold primaries and caucuses for both parties throughout the next six months to determine the eventual Republican and Democratic candidates, who will be officially nominated at the parties' national conventions in August and September before the November election.
Meanwhile, the veteran McCain, whose steadfast support of the Bush administration's Iraq had troubled his campaign throughout much of the past year, was clearly enjoying his resurgence Tuesday as he was mobbed by supporters at a polling station in Nashua.
The longtime Arizona senator, 71, joked the early wins in the two hamlets, in which he garnered a combined total of 10 votes, had "all the earmarks of a landslide."
'We're going to work all day': Clinton
On Tuesday morning, Clinton and her daughter Chelsea poured coffee for voters and a police officer at a Manchester elementary school before dawn, greeted by a dozen voters and twice as many supporters outside.
"We're going to work all day to get the vote out," said the the New York senator who two months ago enjoyed a ten-point lead in the state over Obama.
Clinton, who had been considered the Democratic front-runner in the race for the White House, and is seeking to revive her campaign, became emotional during one stop on Monday.
During a last-minute pitch for support, Clinton was asked about how she gets out of bed in the morning for such a tough job.
"It's not easy. It's not easy.
"And I couldn't do it if I just didn't, you know, passionately believe it was the right thing to do," she said, her voice catching.
"You know, I've had so many opportunities from this country, I just don't want to see us fall backwards," she said, her voice trailing off.
Earlier, Clinton praised Obama as "a very talented politician," but added she was the only candidate who has proven over the past few months that she can handle the intense pressure placed upon the party's front-runner.
Among the Republican fold, polls showed McCain neck and neck with Mitt Romney, who enjoys a high profile in the state as the former governor of the neighbouring state of Massachusetts.
The two candidates have accused each other of mudslinging in the New Hampshire contest and have not disguised their apparently mutual dislike of one another during debates preceding the vote.
But the tone among the other Republican candidates appeared more cordial on Tuesday. By 7 a.m. ET, three of the hopefuls had already showed up at a church in Manchester, the site of one of the largest polling places in the city.
When former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani passed each other outside, Huckabee jokingly asked the former New York mayor for his vote.
"We started below the bottom. For us to come in the top four would be a win for us," Huckabee told reporters.
Moments later, Romney arrived at the site and declared, "The Republicans will vote for me. The independents will get behind me."
McCain, however, won the New Hampshire primary in 2000 over the eventual Republican victor, U.S. President George W. Bush, and is viewed as highly popular in that state for his often maverick positions during his long senate career.
Romney, with his "Washington is broken" message, is desperate to avoid being shut out in the larger contests following his defeat in Iowa, despite picking up some delegates by winning the Wyoming caucus last week.
Huckabee, who upset Romney in the Iowa vote despite Romney's spending spree on advertising ahead of the vote, was trailing in third place, according to polls.
While critical in terms of momentum and media coverage, the Iowa and New Hampshire contests make up only a fraction of available delegates who will pledge support for a candidate at the parties' national conventions.