Tom Tillotson removes ballots for counting after midnight that were cast in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, at The Balsams Grand Resort, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012, in Dixville, New Hampshire (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

New Hampshire will cast and count the first actual votes of the 2012 presidential race today—the Iowa caucuses highlighted a glorified straw poll—and in so doing they will start answering the critical questions of an election season that promises to be wildly expensive, fiercely negative and potentially definitional for the Republican Party and the country.

Here’s what New Hampshire can tell us:

1. Is Mitt “I like to be able to fire people” Romney melting?

The GOP front-runner barely won Iowa—by eight votes over supposed-to-be-an-also-ran Rick Santorum. Seventy-five percent of caucus voters occupied the anyone-but-Romney camp.

In New Hampshire, he briefly polled close to 50 percent. But as the primary has approached, Romney has ticked downward. He hasn’t helped any by a primary-eve campaign swing that saw the accused “looter” of American businesses talk about how much he likes to fire people.

Even if Romney finishes first, he needs a strong win. As a big campaigner, big spender and virtual resident of the first-primary state, he needs to run at least ten points ahead of his nearest competitor and finish with more than a third of the vote. Anything less will confirm Iowa’s signal: that Republicans really aren’t that into Mitt. That will encourage his conservative competitors, particularly Newt Gingrich, to ramp up the attacks in South Carolina, Florida and later primary and caucus states. And it will keep Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard folks on the hunt for an alternative candidate. (It is probably worth noting that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was the star of Romney’s last rallies in New Hampshire. The candidate leaned in as close as he could to Christie, hoping to get in the pictures.)

2. Are there any responsible Republicans left?

Mitt Romney is not a moderate, and neither is Jon Huntsman. Both have been portrayed as insufficiently conservative. In fact, Romney is actively competing for the votes of social conservatives and Tea Partisans, while Huntsman is echoing most of their themes —especially with his embrace of House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan’s plan to batter Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The only thing that distinguishes them from the rest of a field that includes Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry is that Romney is trying to maintain his November viability by avoiding the ugliest excesses of language and policy, while Huntsman is actually referencing reality on issues such as climate change, civil unions and “too-big-to-fail” banks.

So does it matter if Romney and Huntsman combine to get over 50 percent of the vote in New Hampshire? Yes. It means that the hard-right does not define every aspect of the Republican Party, as conservative activists and much of the media suggests. At least not in New England.

That said, Romney has run right in the early caucus and primary states, airing ads featuring author Ann Coulter to confirm his conservative credibility. Huntsman has gone another direction, emphasizing his determination to put country ahead of party (as a former Obama administration ambassador to China) and avoiding social-conservative hot-button issues. Even if Huntsman is not a genuine old-school Republican moderate, the vote he gets in New Hampshire— where he has bet it all, with heavy campaigning and heavy spending— will say a lot about whether this party will keep spinning rightward.

A strong second-place finish by Huntsman gives groups that have tried to maintain a middle in the party—the Republican Main Street Partnership, the Log Cabin Republicans, Republicans for Choice—an argument for continuing. A weak finish, in fourth place or worse, will another question: Why do these people want to attend a tea party where they are not welcome?

3. Is Ron Paul for real?

The libertarian-leaning congressman ran well in Iowa, where a caucus system that rewarded candidates with an ardent following. He also had another advantage in Iowa, a state with a long tradition of anti-interventionist sentiment that paralleled some of Paul’s foreign-policy positions. But he still finished third. A third-place finish, or worse, in New Hampshire would suggest that, while Paul may have a base on the libertarian edge of the GOP and among independents who are willing to caucus or cast primary votes on the Republican side, he is not really gaining traction within a party that is anything but libertarian.

Paul’s announcement that he will focus on later caucus states—rather than some high-profile primaries—suggests that he beginning to recognize this prospect.

A strong New Hampshire finish—as a solid second following Romney— will maintain Paul’s options, both as a contender within the party and as a potential third-party (Libertarian) or independent contender in November.

4. What happens if Buddy Roemer beats Rick Perry?

Perry finished fifth in Iowa. That was bad. But what if he finishes sixth in New Hampshire—a state where, despite dropping back somewhat, he has run TV ads, done mailings, maintained a network of campaign offices and kept staff on the ground? Is that possible? Um, yes.

At least one poll has Perry trailing former Louisiana Governor Buddy Roemer, who is running his campaign with a $100 contribution limit and has not allowed anywhere near the Republican debates.

Here’s a question: If you lose to Buddy Roemer after spending $17 million and being part of all the debates, isn’t it time to quit?

Here’s another question: If Buddy Roemer does beat Perry, hasn’t he earned the right to debate?

5. How many votes will Barack Obama get—in the Democratic and Republican primaries?

There’s a Democratic primary, as well, today in New Hampshire. In Iowa, Obama’s Democratic caucus vote was competitive with the number Romney obtained. In Dixville Notch, the northern New Hampshire town that casts the first primary votes at midnight, Obama got three votes to two each for Romney and Huntsman.

Will Obama’s vote in the Democratic primary exceed that of the winner of the Republican primary? It’s not a proper test, for a variety of reasons. But this is one way to measure enthusiasm. Another way is to watch Obama’s percentage. There are a number of minor candidates on the Democratic ballot in New Hampshire, and the state has a tradition of write-in voting. If a lot of Democrats vote for someone other than Obama, that’s not good news for the president. By the same token, if a lot of Republican primary voters write in the name of the Democratic president—as happened for Bill Clinton in 1996—that’s a good measure of GOP frustration with their field.