Republican candidate Kelly Ayotte maintains an early, eight-point lead over her Democratic opponent, Rep. Paul Hodes (D-N.H.), in the chase to fill New Hampshire's open Senate seat, a new poll finds.

Ayotte, who stepped down from her post as state attorney general in July, nabs 46 percent to Hodes' 38 percent, according to Rasmussen's latest election survey. Both are relatively popular within their own political parties -- they both have the support of 81 percent of their respective party's base  -- but Ayotte has an advantage among voters with no party affiliation. She leads in that category by 14 points, the poll finds.

Most interestingly, Rasmussen predicts the race to fill outgoing-Sen. Judd Gregg's (R-N.H.) seat will pivot mostly on the healthcare debate. As pollsters astutely pointed out, Hodes -- who has previously signaled his support for a public option -- will have to vote on any proposal that reaches the House floor, while Ayotte will not.

And the outcome is sure to factor greatly into New Hampshire voters' decision making: The electorate, Rasmussen finds, is almost evenly split on whether Congress should pass President Barack Obama's healthcare plan.