Sunny skies but light turnout for five Northeastern primaries

Voters in the Northeast aren't embracing to the better-than-expected weather Tuesday, with election officials across the region reporting exceedingly light turnout in primary contests across five states.

Fears that a springtime nor'easter could slam the Lake Erie region with another round of snow, which in turn could disrupt voting, turned out to be mostly unfounded, with storms mostly contained to high-altitude areas in the Appalachian mountains.

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"Since the weather held out, things are looking good," said Matthew Keeler, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State. "The fact that the snow held off was a big victory for everybody."

But despite a reprieve from winter weather, turnout remains light in the Keystone State — and across the Northeast — lending a high volatility in some of the day's most interesting races.

In Pennsylvania's 12th district, where Rep. Mark Critz is facing off against fellow Democratic Rep. Jason Altmire, the low turnout could benefit Critz, who has the backing of the area's major unions. Their get-out-the-vote organization could prove a large tactical advantage, especially with overall turnout down now that interest in the presidential race has waned.

But Altmire has led Critz in polling throughout the cycle, and the district — created through redistricting — contains most of his old territory. Both candidates predicted a tight race that could come down to a few hundred votes.

Mitt Romney is expected to win the state's Republican presidential primary easily, taking the majority of the 72 available delegates. Pollsters stopped surveying the state earlier this month after native son Rick Santorum exited the race, but at that point neither Ron Paul nor Newt Gingrich was breaking double digits.

Romney is expected to take a substantial number of New York's 95 delegates and Connecticut's 28 delegates. It's possible that the former Massachusetts governor will win more delegates in those three states alone than Gingrich has in the entire campaign to date.

Romney had 698 delegates, according to a count by The Associated Press, versus 137 for Gingrich and 75 for Paul. It takes 1,144 delegates to cinch the nomination.

Still, Gingrich hopes he can antagonize Romney in Delaware, where a victory there could feed into the perception Romney is unable to close the deal and inspire Republican voters to the polls.

Gingrich's campaign has maintained that the state's small geography and strong Tea Party organization could play to the former Speaker's strengths.

"This has been a good opportunity for us, we have been here seeing a lot of people,” Gingrich said while campaigning in that state earlier this week, according to MSNBC. “We have got really positive responses, and I would hope we would do well here — either carry it or come very, very close."

According to Delaware Election Commissioner Elaine Manlove, fewer than 1,000 absentee ballots had been submitted before Tuesday, and reports there said turnout "is very light."

"I think people probably think it's a done deal, that's what I'm hearing people say on the radio, and it's a smaller election, so that might be what people think," Manlove said.

But that complacency, paired with Gingrich's focus, could deal Romney a loss. Pollsters have ignored the state to date, so it's not known if the former governor holds a lead going into Tuesday. But a win would secure Gingrich all of the state's 17 delegates and likely trip up Romney's attempt to focus on the general election in a planned Tuesday night address from New Hampshire.

In Rhode Island, Paul is hoping to create similar chaos. The Texas congressman, still hunting for his first win in a state primary, bought airtime in the state and hoped the significant college population might turn out to buoy his campaign. His efforts may be aided by little Republican establishment in the predominantly Democratic state.

"So far in Rhode Island the few precincts we've seen have light turnout," said Robert Kando, executive director of the state's Board of Elections.

Nevertheless, Romney remains the heavy favorite in each of Tuesday's contests. In his speech in New Hampshire Tuesday evening, Romney is expected to present his vision for a "better America," according to campaign aides, and acknowledge that the general election has, for all intents and purposes, begun.

If Gingrich is unable to prevail in Delaware, Tuesday night could also signal the beginning of the end for his struggling campaign.

On Monday, the former Speaker told NBC News that he would have to "reassess" his campaign if dealt a loss in Delaware. While Gingrich has previously pledged to continue on to August's Republican national convention in Tampa, Fla., mounting debt and resignations from key members of his campaign team may force him to exit the race.

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