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Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio shares a laugh with a local resident at a restaurant in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 8, 2016. After placing third in the Iowa caucuses, Rubio is hoping for a good showing when people in New Hampsire head to the polls in the 'First in the Nation' presidential primary. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio shares a laugh with a local resident at a restaurant in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 8, 2016. After placing third in the Iowa caucuses, Rubio is hoping for a good showing when people in New Hampsire head to the polls in the 'First in the Nation' presidential primary. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

U.S. ELECTION

U.S. presidential candidates criss-cross New Hampshire ahead of primary Add to ...

Presidential candidates sprinted across New Hampshire on Monday, stopping at restaurants, universities and community centres in the final hours of a crucial and volatile contest that could reshape each party’s race for the nomination.

As a snowstorm lashed much of the state, the Republican and Democratic candidates engaged in a last-ditch effort to win supporters, bruise opponents and mobilize their voters ahead of Tuesday’s primary.

Polls indicate that Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders holds a large lead in the Democratic contest over former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton, but she has reduced the gap in recent days.

On the Republican side, businessman Donald Trump remains well ahead while five other candidates – Florida Senator Marco Rubio, Ohio Governor John Kasich, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Texas Senator Ted Cruz and former Florida governor Jeb Bush – jockey to secure second and third place.

Whatever the polls indicate, anything is possible in Tuesday’s primary. New Hampshire is notorious for delivering welcome – and unwelcome – surprises to candidates. Some voters wait until the very last days to make up their minds, while voters registered as independents decide whether to vote in the Republican or Democratic contest on polling day itself.

The results of the primary will winnow the field of Republican candidates. Any sign that voters are starting to unite behind one of the more mainstream candidates will raise the pressure on like-minded candidates to drop out of the race. Meanwhile, if Mr. Trump wins as predicted, his bid for the nomination will grow more credible and durable: Since 1976, the eventual Republican nominee has always won in either Iowa or New Hampshire – or both.

On the Democratic side, the contest will determine which candidate enters the next set of primaries with fresh momentum. Mr. Sanders, after leading for so long in the polls, needs a decisive victory, while Ms. Clinton could claim success simply by confining him to a narrow victory.

As if the race for the presidential nomination were not unpredictable enough, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg confirmed on Monday that he is considering a bid as an independent candidate. Mr. Bloomberg told the Financial Times that he found the level of discourse in the campaign “distressingly banal and an outrage and an insult to voters.”

In New Hampshire, weeks of campaigning drew to a close with a final burst of events. At the Barley House in Concord, a bar and restaurant across the street from the state capitol building, Mr. Rubio made an impassioned plea to supporters, highlighting his ability to take on Ms. Clinton or Mr. Sanders. “I know that if I’m the nominee, I [will] win,” he said.

Mr. Rubio emerged from the Iowa caucuses with a surprisingly strong third-place finish, but stumbled badly in the Republican debate this past weekend, when Mr. Christie mocked him for repeating the same handful of statements on the campaign trail.

At the back of the room stood Joan Mahoney, a 72-year-old who lives in nearby Pembroke. She was impressed by Mr. Rubio’s energy, but she said she hadn’t completely made up her mind whether to vote for him or Mr. Bush or Mr. Kasich. “It’ll come together,” she said. “There’s plenty of time.”

Many candidates have learned the hard way that New Hampshire voters can be unpredictable. “The electorate makes up its mind at the 11th hour,” said Mike Cuzzi, a Democratic strategist. In 2008, Mr. Cuzzi helped direct U.S. President Barack Obama’s campaign in the state. On primary day, polls showed Mr. Obama leading by eight percentage points or more, yet he ended up losing to Ms. Clinton by three points.

Mr. Trump appears poised to secure his first victory in the race for the nomination after finishing second in Iowa – that is, if his voters show up at the polls. On Monday morning, he spoke for an hour to a packed room at the Elks Lodge in Salem. “Get out tomorrow and vote, it’s so important,” he said. “I promise you we are going to do such a great job.”

Mr. Trump didn’t hesitate to blast Mr. Bush, the only Republican who has openly criticized the New York businessman. Doing a mocking imitation of Mr. Bush’s voice, Mr. Trump called him “a total stiff,” a “lightweight” and “not a smart man.”

The audience relished his brand of combative bombast, with a few exceptions. “Would I prefer someone more polished? Sure,” said Jim Needham, 76. “But I’ll put up with a lot of crap from Trump, because he’s the only guy who can get something done.”

Mr. Cruz, fresh off his victory in Iowa, isn’t expected to fare well in New Hampshire, which is far less amenable to his mixture of fiery conservatism and evangelical fervour.

For Mr. Kasich, Tuesday’s primary is a last stand: His campaign has devoted significant time and resources to the state and he needs to demonstrate more than lukewarm support.

Meanwhile, the Democratic contest is growing more heated. On Monday, Ms. Clinton attacked Mr. Sanders, asserting he had indirectly accepted money from Wall Street firms (the charge aims to insulate Ms. Clinton, who has come under fire for accepting large speaking fees and donations from financial institutions). A spokesman for Mr. Sanders called the statement “false and absurd,” according to The Washington Post.

Speaking to a crowd of about 500 people in Nashua on Monday, Mr. Sanders repeated the message that has proved a surprising hit with Democratic voters – that the U.S. political system is rigged in favour of the wealthy to the detriment of the poor and the middle class. “What we are doing is asking people to think big,” he said. “If we can stand together, we can bring change.”

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