MANCHESTER, N.H. — Jon Huntsman Jr.’s third-place finish in New Hampshire leaves the former Utah governor with a tenuous perch among the presidential contenders as they head to South Carolina for the Jan. 21 primary there.
“I think we’re in the hunt,” he told his supporters Tuesday night. “I’d say third place is the ticket to ride. Hello, South Carolina!”
“It’s a good start,” said Thomas Atmer, 81, a retired architect and Republican-leaning voter who liked Huntsman’s foreign-policy experience and sense of humor.
But others were dismayed that Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), whom they view as extreme, received so much support, which they attributed to young people.
“I’m a little disappointed that New Hampshire couldn’t get it together and push Huntsman to second place,” said Tony Huard, 45, who noted that his 23-year-old son voted for Paul.
Huntsman faces an uncertain path forward. His immediate hurdle is South Carolina, a state with a large number of Christian conservative voters who may not naturally gravitate to his brand of politics and his Mormon faith. But to remain a viable alternative, he must hold his own in South Carolina and perform well in the Jan. 31 primary in Florida, a state that in many ways resembles the broader American electorate.
Huntsman had been an instant favorite when he entered the race six months ago on the strength of his résumé. He has served in four administrations, including as ambassador to China for President Obama, and was elected to two terms as Utah’s governor. And as the son of a billionaire businessman who founded a chemical company, Huntsman also had financial resources.
He decided to bypass Iowa under the assumption that New Hampshire, with its moderate electorate and large number of political independents, would be more receptive to his bipartisan political résumé. A strong finish in the first primary of the presidential contest, he hoped, would give him enough momentum to become competitive in the race.
But Mitt Romney emerged as the clear front-runner here, leaving the contest a race for second. And many of the independents Huntsman hoped to win over began flocking to Paul’s libertarian views and isolationism on foreign policy.
Huntsman struggled for months to gain attention and raise money while his rivals engaged in a heated race in Iowa. But he surged in the final days here, delivering a strong performance in a GOP debate Sunday and streamlining his message of fiscal conservatism and moderation on many other issues. He painted himself as a consistent and trustworthy politician who rejects partisan litmus tests and is willing to compromise to break through Washington’s gridlock.
“I am who I am,” he said at a rally in the town of Exeter recently. “I’ve done what I’ve done, and you can take a look at my record. I’m not going to contort myself into a pretzel. I’m not going to pander. And I’m not going to sign any of these silly pledges.”
In his more than 150 appearances in the state, he noted to voters that he instituted a flat tax in Utah and was an early endorser of the budget plan of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.). He advocated strongly for term limits in Congress and closer business ties with China and the rest of Asia.
But he took a more moderate approach on issues such as climate change and illegal immigration, and was milder in his criticism of Obama than some of his rivals.
Many Republicans dismissed Huntsman outright because of his decision to serve as Obama’s ambassador to China, which they viewed as evidence that he is not devoted to the party’s causes. Indeed, many who attended his events were Democratic-leaning voters who backed Obama in 2008 but have been disappointed by his presidency.
Huntsman has said repeatedly that he is the candidate whom the Obama campaign most fears. And although the support of such voters bolsters his argument, because it shows that he may be able to draw centrist support away from Obama, it also raises the possibility that those voters would abandon him come the general election.
“As a Democratic-leaning voter from Massachusetts, I appreciate his commitment to public service and his willingness to put country above party. He is rational, reasonable and that is sorely lacking in the GOP field,” said Howard Gold, 44, a lawyer who drove to Manchester to stand outside a polling place with a Huntsman sign.
But would he vote for Huntsman should he become the nominee? “I want to wake up on Election Day and have two good choices,” Gold said.