Vermont's Bernie Sanders has become the national polling frontrunner and is hoping for a convincing win over Buttigieg

Concord (United States) (AFP) - Democrats cast ballots Tuesday in New Hampshire’s critical primary with leftist Bernie Sanders and young challenger Pete Buttigieg leading the pack in the race to challenge President Donald Trump in November.

White House hopefuls were seeking much-needed clarity in the Granite State after the first-in-the-nation Iowa vote devolved into chaos last week, with the frontrunners emerging neck-and-neck after a days-long delay in the count.

New Hampshire is home to just 1.3 million people – providing less than one percent of the pledged delegates in the Democratic nominating contest – but it is a battleground with an outsized influence on the political landscape due to the timing of its primary.

Former Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, pictured at a "Get Out the Vote" rally in Nashua, New Hampshire, is expecting a strong bounce in New Hampshire

The 78-year-old Sanders, from neighboring Vermont, has become the national polling frontrunner.

With most polling stations closed by 7:00 pm (0000 GMT) he was hoping for a convincing win over Buttigieg in the state where he routed Hillary Clinton in 2016.

While victory in New Hampshire is already an expected part of Sanders’s election strategy, 38-year-old moderate Buttigieg, running solidly in second, could get the biggest bounce from the state, after winning narrowly in Iowa.

He is languishing at 10 percent in the latest national polls and has negligible support among African Americans in more diverse upcoming battleground states.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, pictured after a town hall in Exeter, New Hampshire on February 10, 2020, has been rising in the polls

Pundits believe this vital constituency will start to take a serious look at the ex-mayor from the Midwestern state of Indiana if he comes out as winner in both of the opening races.

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar’s popularity meanwhile has surged in New Hampshire since a strong debate on Friday, moving her into third ahead of liberal Elizabeth Warren and party grandee Joe Biden, who are both struggling to resurrect wounded campaigns.

- ‘Fight for every vote’ -

After months atop the pack, Biden has conceded he expects to do badly in New Hampshire, as he did in Iowa – and the former vice president raised eyebrows by canceling a primary-night party to head straight on to his stronghold of South Carolina.

After months atop the Democratic pack, Joe Biden has conceded he expects to do badly in New Hampshire as he did in Iowa

“I’m not giving up on New Hampshire,” insisted the 77-year-old – who is sliding in the polls and hopes to leverage his popularity among the more diverse electorates of Nevada and South Carolina.

An unconvinced Warren countered that Biden’s exit meant he was “not here to fight for the votes in New Hampshire.”

“We get out here and we talk to voters, and we fight for every vote,” she said as she greeted a few dozen volunteers and supporters, in Nashua. “That’s who I am. I am a fighter.”

A light snow fell at a Boys and Girls Club in the state capital Concord, as people showed a voter ID, received a paper ballot and went to one of 33 voting booths curtained by red, white and blue plastic or to table top voting spots.

Mike Schowalter, a 39-year-old conservative, said he voted for Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist who critics complain is proposing a health care overhaul and other sweeping ideas that are just too expensive.

“It does seem kind of strange, but I do think a lot of stuff going on in our country right now is a bit broken,” Schowalter told AFP. “I think he’ll get us talking.”

US presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren greets supporters during the New Hampshire Primary at the Amherst Elementary School in Nashua, New Hampshire on February 11, 2020

The RealClearPolitics polling average shows Sanders – who espouses a “political revolution” – at 28.7 percent in New Hampshire, with Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana next on 21.3 percent.

Two new polls showed Klobuchar moving past Warren, the main progressive in the race alongside Sanders.

- ‘Dramatic shift’ -

Voters at the Northwest Elementary School polling station in Manchester, New Hampshire on February 11, 2020

“New Hampshire, the choice you make today will shape our nation’s future,” Buttigieg tweeted as polling began on Tuesday, depicting himself as a fresh new force that can lead a drive to beat Trump.

Complicating Tuesday’s vote, independents – who outnumber both Democrats and Republicans in the state – can vote in either primary, potentially tipping the scales in a tight race.

Buoyed by a strong Iowa showing, Sanders has emerged as the national Democratic frontrunner with 25 percent support, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll which described it as a “dramatic shift.”

Biden has skidded from 26 to 17 percent support since the end of January.

US Democratic primaries and caucuses

Significantly, the survey also showed billionaire Michael Bloomberg vaulting into third place on 15 percent – suggesting a possible upset when New York’s former mayor, who is skipping the first four nominating contests, throws himself fully into the race.

Competing for the support defecting from Biden, Bloomberg is focusing on Super Tuesday on March 3, when 14 states vote – spending a record $260 million of his personal fortune on his campaign.

Asked about Bloomberg running, Sanders told NBC in an interview Tuesday that he had “a real problem with multibillionaires literally buying elections.”

“I don’t begrudge his wealth, but I do begrudge a billionaire thinking he can buy the election,” said Sanders, who earned just under $3 million from 2016-2018.

“He has every right in the world to run for office… But he doesn’t have the right to buy an election. This is exactly the problem with American politics.”