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A Big Night for New Hampshire and the 2016 Election

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By Stephen Collinson

CNN

(CNN) -- New Hampshire voters are making their choice for president in the first-in-the-nation primary contest that public opinion polls suggest could deliver victory to a pair of anti-establishment outsiders, Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders.

Candidates spent the day touring polling places and taking last-minute shots at one another as they awaited the judgment of voters in the second crucial contest of the nominating season after Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won last week's Iowa caucuses for Republicans and Democrat Hillary Clinton barely edged out Sanders.

The primary is especially important for Trump, who hopes to bolster his narrative that he is one of America's perpetual winners after coming second in Iowa. If his percentage of the vote falls short of his polling numbers for a second time, serious questions will be asked about the depth of his appeal.

The billionaire real estate magnate on Tuesday restated the themes that helped his campaign catch fire.

"We're going to have a wall and we're going to do everything else including the vets, the military, get rid of Obamacare," he said.

Rubio's stumble

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio will find out whether his stumble under New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's ferocious fire at Saturday's GOP debate will stall his momentum after he looked on track to emerge as the top establishment candidate in the state.

As he left a polling station in Derry, Rubio dismissed concerns about his debate performance as a "media thing."

"Voters in New Hampshire are serious about, they understand what's at stake here," Rubio told CNN's Dana Bash. "The future of America is at stake."

The primary also represents a make or break moment for establishment candidates like Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Christie, who could find it very difficult to raise sufficient campaign cash to continue if they get a poor result.

Kasich accused Bush's once front-running campaign of "freaking out" after it upped attacks against him.

"They're getting more and more desperate. They need to relax a little bit. You know, it's just an election, a campaign," he told John Berman and Kate Bolduan on CNN's "At This Hour."

For their part, Democrats are waiting to assess the magnitude of Sanders' expected victory over Clinton, which could offer the anti-Wall Street crusader a boost heading into less-hospitable territory in Southern states.

The former secretary of state went to a Dunkin' Donuts with her daughter, Chelsea, and several polling locations and bumped into Frank Fiorina, the husband of Republican candidate Carly Fiorina, who has been a scorching critic of Clinton during the campaign. She asked him to send her best regards to Fiorina.

The latest CNN/WMUR daily tracking poll on Monday showed Sanders with a 26-point lead over Clinton. On the Republican side, Trump maintained the lead he has held for months, 31% to next-best Rubio with 17%. Three-quarters of the polling was completed before Saturday's debate, so it was unclear whether Rubio had been hurt by his rocky performance.

Among other candidates, Cruz was third with 14%, ahead of Kasich at 10% and Bush at 7%. Christie received 4%, according to CNN's tracking poll. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.2 percentage points. The high number of undecided voters could make this a very fluid race.

Despite his lowly position in the polls, Christie has spent the past few days basking in his debate assault on Rubio.

Under pressure from the New Jersey brawler, Rubio repeated the same line four times during the debate, exacerbating criticisms that he is overly scripted.

"When the lights get that bright, you either shine or you melt, and we can't afford to have a president who melts," Christie said Monday at a campaign event in Hudson, New Hampshire.

Christie, Bush and Kasich are hoping that Rubio's rough night halts momentum he built up coming third in Iowa. A strong second place in the Granite State would enhance Rubio's case that he is best-positioned to consolidate opposition to Trump and Cruz.

Crucial moment for Trump

Only hours before the primary, new clouds gathered around the Clinton campaign following a Politico report that the candidate and her husband were disappointed with the direction of her campaign and that a staff shakeup could be in the offing.

Clinton, after a campaign stop in Manchester, responded to the reports of a campaign shakeup in an interview on MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show" on Monday, acknowledging her campaign will "take stock" of their operation.

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"I have no idea what they're talking about or who they are talking to," Clinton said of the Politico report. "We're going to take stock, but it's going to be the campaign that I've got. I'm very confident in the people that I have. I'm very committed to them, they're committed to doing the best we can."

David Axelrod, a CNN senior political commentator and former top adviser to President Barack Obama, suggested that the blame lies at the top.

"When the exact same problems crop up in separate campaigns, with different staff, at what point do the principals say, 'Hey, maybe it's US?'" Axelrod tweeted.

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