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Huntsman has 'ticket to ride'

Last modified: 1/11/2012 12:00:00 AM
Jon Huntsman bet his presidential hopes on New Hampshire, and last night he said his third-place finish in the Granite State was good enough to give his campaign a critical boost and continue on to the next contest.

"I say third place is a ticket to ride, ladies and gentlemen," Huntsman told cheering supporters packed into the Black Brimmer American Bar and Grill in Manchester. "Hello, South Carolina!"

As the votes were counted last night, Huntsman was in third place with about 17 percent, finishing behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and Texas Congressman Ron Paul.

Stuck in single digits in some surveys just last week, polls showed Huntsman with the wind at his back in the campaign's final days, though he couldn't catch up to Paul.

And after clashing with Romney in last weekend's debates over his service as President Obama's ambassador to China, Huntsman found a new campaign slogan - "Country First" - and a new energy on the trail.

Both were on display last night as supporters chanted "Join the Hunt" and "Country First" while Huntsman shared the stage with his wife, Mary Kaye, his three adult daughters, his son-in-law and his parents, Karen and Jon Sr.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I love this state," Huntsman said to cheers. "We have worked hard and diligently. We have pounded the pavement. We have shaken hands. We have had conversations. We have won people over, person by person. This is the old way to get politics done in New Hampshire, and my confidence in the system is reborn because of the people of New Hampshire."

Huntsman, 51, the Mandarin-speaking former governor of Utah, resigned as the U.S. ambassador to China last year and returned to the United States to seek the Republican nomination to face his old boss, Obama, in November's general election.

He officially entered the race in June. But he stalled in low single digits in national polls and had trouble raising money, loaning millions of his own dollars to the campaign to keep it going.

Huntsman decided to stake everything on the New Hampshire primary - in the fall, the campaign closed its national headquarters in Orlando, Fla., and set up shop on Elm Street in Manchester.

He campaigned here relentlessly, keeping up a busy schedule of town halls, meet-and-greets and house parties across the state. Huntsman blitzed across New Hampshire in the campaign's last week, from the Monadnock region to the North Country, from the Upper Valley to the Seacoast.

And, first in a televised debate Sunday and then at campaign stops later that day and Monday, Huntsman began to attack Romney directly and with more vigor than he had before.

At issue: Romney's criticism of Huntsman's work in China under a Democratic president and Romney's comment Monday that he likes "being able to fire people who provide services to me." Romney, in answer to a question, was talking about giving consumers the ability to fire health insurers who provide poor service, but some of his opponents seized on the quote, including Huntsman.

"It's become abundantly clear over the last couple of days what differentiates Gov. Romney and me," Huntsman told reporters Monday in Concord. "I will always put my country first. It seems that Gov. Romney believes in putting politics first. Gov. Romney enjoys firing people. I enjoy creating jobs."

A visibly invigorated Huntsman began drawing larger crowds to his events, especially in southern New Hampshire. And larger packs of news media began following him on the trail, augmenting the small band of just days before.

"We love New Hampshire voters. We've given this state our heart and soul," Huntsman said yesterday as he visited Manchester's Ward 1 polling place, Webster Elementary School, surrounded by a crush of reporters, television cameras and cheering supporters. "All of this - I love the voters of this state."

Huntsman is a fiscal conservative but more moderate than the rest of the Republican field on some social issues, supporting civil unions for same-sex couples, for example. But he told Monitor editors in a December interview, "don't mistake a moderate temperament, a person who believes in actually sitting all . . . points of view around a table and making a decision based on that, with a moderate record."

Don Graff, 49, came out to Huntsman's party last night in Manchester. The Bedford Republican said he voted for Huntsman because he liked his foreign-policy experience and generally agreed with him on the issues.

"Obviously, if he came in first or second, that would be better," Graff said. "But, considering it wasn't too long ago that he was way back in the pack, I think it's a very respectable showing."

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com)


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