“Not only is there not an heir apparent, there’s not even a whiff of an heir apparent,” said Stephen Duprey, a Concord businessman and the state’s Republican national committeeman.
Unlike the last two Republican primaries here, and many before, this one will not feature a candidate who has previously won significant votes in the state.
Beyond the sheer uncertainty, the other factor increasing New Hampshire’s importance is that it offers a tantalizing opportunity for some of the establishment-oriented Republican candidates, who will almost certainly need to notch at least one victory to survive the initial contests. If there is no truly contested Democratic primary here, the unaffiliated voters who are allowed to participate in either party’s balloting could flood into the Republican race and bolster one of the more moderate candidates.
“The more independents you get in a potential Republican electorate, the more unpredictable the electorate becomes,” said Thomas D. Rath, a former state attorney general and longtime Republican strategist.
Sandwiched between the Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary, in which the Republican electorate is heavier on religious conservatives, the New Hampshire primary is the early contest where Mr. Bush, a former Florida governor, and Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey will compete aggressively for a clear win.
With a large number of conservative candidates vying to capture the Iowa caucuses, potentially splintering the vote, and with the prospect of Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina competing in his home state, New Hampshire could prove clarifying.
“Everyone has to compete in New Hampshire, which means a win here is going to mean something,” said Fergus Cullen, a former state party chairman.