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New Hampshire showdown today

WASHINGTON – New Hampshire voters will further shape the nation’s 2016 presidential race today as they head to the polls in a primary election contest characterized by rough-and-tumble political battles on the both sides of the ballot.

Donald Trump finished second in last week’s Republican Iowa caucuses, but the billionaire businessman held a commanding lead in most polls heading into today’s voting in New Hampshire. A University of Massachusetts tracking poll released Monday showed Trump with support of 34 percent of likely Republican voters in New Hampshire, compared with 13 percent each for Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. Meanwhile, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich each registered 10 percent of Republican support in the poll.

Rubio, who registered a surprisingly strong third-place showing in the Iowa caucuses, stumbled during a GOP debate Saturday night as he came under withering attack from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, leading some analysts to question whether the misstep will hurt Rubio in New Hampshire. During the debate, Christie chided Rubio for returning multiple times to a rehearsed talking point that said President Barack Obama “knows exactly what he’s doing.

“There it is. There it is,” Christie said when Rubio began to make the point about Obama for a fourth time. “The memorized 25-second speech. There it is, everybody,”

Rubio’s awkward moment dominated much of the post-debate conversation in the national media.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire’s two-way Democratic primary contest, Sen. Bernie Sanders from neighboring Vermont had support of 53 percent of likely Democratic voters in the University of Massachusetts poll on Monday, compared with 41 percent support for Clinton.

New Hampshire’s presidential election contest is a mixed primary, meaning voters registered as Democrats or Republicans must vote in their party’s primary, but independents can choose to vote in either primary.

Brian Sanderoff, the Journal’s pollster and a longtime observer of presidential politics, said the debate Saturday night in New Hampshire appears to have “slowed Rubio’s momentum” and that the GOP contest is tilting heavily in favor of Trump in New Hampshire.

“Trump has always been ahead in New Hampshire (polls) and is expected to win,” Sanderoff said. “If he were to somehow lose, or have a close race, that would hurt his position. One of the most interesting things, really, is who takes second place.”

Sanderoff said Sanders, who barely lost the Iowa caucuses to Clinton, needs a particularly strong showing today in New Hampshire.

“Sanders has had a lead since December and continues to have a wide lead in the closing days,” Sanderoff said. “Sanders has to win New Hampshire, because he’s going to lose to Hillary in South Carolina. If she loses (in New Hampshire), it’s not the end of the world, but she wants to finish respectably.”

Polls show that Clinton has more minority support than Sanders in South Carolina, which conducts its primary election on Feb. 27.

“Clinton does well with African-Americans,” Sanderoff said.

New Mexico’s primary election is not until June 7, well after the point when modern-day presidential nominating contests have typically been decided. A GOP-led legislative effort to move New Mexico’s primary election from the beginning of June to the third Tuesday in March failed last year.

On Monday in New Hampshire, the Republicans’ second-tier candidates saw fresh hope as they sprinted to the finish line, buoyed by Rubio’s Saturday night debate stumble in New Hampshire. At the same time, the Democrats’ Clinton-Sanders duel veered into gender politics.

Although Trump’s GOP opponents were mainly focusing their attacks on one another, Trump and Bush pulled no punches in dueling television interviews. Bush, who has blasted Trump for using eminent domain in business deals, called Trump a “loser,” while the billionaire businessman called Bush an “embarrassment to his family.”

“Jeb is having some kind of a breakdown, I think,” Trump told CNN. “I think it’s a very sad situation that’s taking place.”

The Democratic race swerved in a new direction after a pair of prominent Clinton supporters railed against female voters who are backing Sanders despite the prospect of electing the first female president. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said over the weekend that there was “a special place in hell” for women who don’t help women, while writer and famed feminist Gloria Steinem suggested women backing Sanders were doing so “to meet boys.”

Steinem sought to stem criticism of her comments, apologizing in a Facebook post for suggesting young women weren’t serious about their political views. Yet the dust-up spoke to the underlying concern among many Clinton backers that the former first lady isn’t securing the levels of support among women her campaign had anticipated, considering the historic nature of her candidacy.

Sanders, cruising toward a likely first win in New Hampshire, resisted calling more attention to the accusations being leveled by Clinton’s campaign. Hoping to avoid any last-minute misstep, he stuck to core campaign themes as he addressed cheering supporters in Nashua.

“We have come a long way in the last nine months,” Sanders said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.