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Four things to watch in New Hampshire's GOP race Add to ...

Some New Hampshire polls opened at midnight and, while the handful of votes so far cast and counted are too few to identify a trend, they could be a harbinger of a surprising result in the state’s Republican presidential primary.

Will Jon Huntsman be the star of the night?

Here’s what to look for when the polls close:

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CAN MITT ROMNEY BREAK HIS GLASS CEILING?

The former Massachusetts governor has been dogged throughout the campaign by a net resistance to his candidacy among the party’s base. New Hampshire was supposed to give him a clear victory to show he can build a coalition to win in November.

New Hampshire voters were inundated on Monday with negative coverage of Mr. Romney’s “I like being able to fire people” gaffe and allegations by Newt Gingrich and others that he “looted” the companies he invested in when he ran Bain Capital.

It was hardly the way Mr. Romney’s operatives hoped to end what had been a meticulously executed campaign in the Granite State.

The final Suffolk University tracking poll out Tuesday morning put Mr. Romney’s support at 37 per cent of likely primary voters, up 4 percentage points from Monday.

The Romney camp would be ecstatic if their candidate manages to crack the 40-per-cent barrier in popular support, but they would be satisfied with a result in the high 30s. If Mr. Romney ends the night closer to 30 per cent or less, there will be no joy in Mittsville.

While such a result might not immediately threaten Mr. Romney’s front-runner status heading in to the Jan. 21 primary in South Carolina, it would signal a need to retool elements of the campaign and increase the likelihood the nomination race may drag on well into the spring.

WILL JON HUNTSMAN BE THE SURPRISE OF THE NIGHT?

Former Utah governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman has staked everything on a break out performance in New Hampshire, where independent voters are expected to account for 75,000 of the 250,000 voters who turn out for the GOP primary.

The crowds at his rallies have grown dramatically in recent days and his performance in two weekend debates was widely praised, especially his promise to unite the nation.

That kind of talk plays well in New Hampshire and Mr. Huntsman’s poll numbers have spiked. The Suffolk poll had him at 16 per cent support, up from single digits last week.

Tracking polls are especially good at establishing a candidate’s momentum, or lack thereof, so Mr. Huntsman could be headed for a good night.

He is now in the hunt for second place in New Hampshire with libertarian Texas congressman Ron Paul, who slipped to 18 per cent in the final Suffolk poll.

A good result in the Granite State would position Mr. Huntsman well in Florida, where he located his campaign headquarters and which holds its primary on Jan. 31.

A Huntsman surge would be bad news for Mr. Romney, indicating he faces not only resistance to his candidacy on the Republican right, but also skepticism among the of moderate voters he needs to rally to beat President Barack Obama in November.

WILL RON PAUL MOVE CLOSER TO A THIRD-PARTY RUN?

Mr. Paul won less than 8 per cent of the vote in New Hampshire in 2008. He appears poised to double that result tonight. If he does, expect his supporters to press him harder to run as in independent or third-party candidate in November.

So far, Mr. Paul has not ruled it out, though he has said he has no interest in doing so. But if he finishes strongly tonight, expect a lot more speculation about a third-party bid.

Mr. Paul’s massive fund-raising ability is built on his supporters’ belief that he will continue to fight for the causes of individual liberty and minimalist government that they hold dear. That is considered the primary reason Mr. Paul will not be dropping out of the Republican race any time soon. The longer he stays in, the more money he raises.

But 2012 is shaping up to be a break out year for him and there is clearly an appetite among voters for a third-party run. For the sake of his “movement” and its bank account, he may have no choice but to run in November.

That would be a disaster for the Republican nominee. Memories of 1992, when Ross Perot helped defeat George H.W. Bush and elect Bill Clinton, are fresh in GOP minds.

HOW “GRACIOUS” WILL NEWT GINGRICH’S CONCESSION SPEECH BE?

Newt Gingrich set a new low for concession speeches last week in Iowa, where he finished fourth in the state’s GOP caucuses after leading the polls for much of December.

The former House speaker congratulated Rick Santorum on his virtual tie for first place and he even congratulated the third-place finisher, Ron Paul, with whom he had tangled bitterly throughout the campaign. (It’s only gotten worse since.) But he did not even mention Mr. Romney, who finished on top with Mr. Santorum, other than to allude to the “Massachusetts moderate” in the race.

Instead, he signalled the GOP contest was about to get a lot uglier.

“We’re not going to go out and run 30-second gut shots,” Mr. Gingrich said. “But I do reserve the right to tell the truth. And if the truth seems negative, that may be more a comment on his record than it is on politics.”

On Monday, Mr. Gingrich launched a new line of attack on Mr. Romney, signalling he would go after his record at Bain Capital as he heads to South Carolina.

“You have to raise questions about somebody [who]goes out, invests a certain amount of money, say $30-million, takes out 180 million…And then the company goes bankrupt,” Mr. Gingrich said. “Is capitalism really about the ability of a handful of rich people to manipulate the lives of thousands of other people and walk off with the money or is that in fact somehow a little bit of a flawed system?”

Mr. Gingrich will be lucky to finish in the double digits in New Hampshire. Though he might not be benefitting from his own attacks on Mr. Romney, they are clearly hurting the front-runner.

How much more damage can he do before he leaves the race?

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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