By HOLLY RAMER, The Associated Press
CONCORD, N.H. — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman vowed Tuesday to press on to South Carolina after finishing third in the New Hampshire primary on which he had staked his candidacy – and despite huge hurdles ahead.
"I say third place is a ticket to ride, ladies and gentleman! Hello, South Carolina!" Huntsman told supporters at a Manchester restaurant.
Huntsman heads to that state Wednesday facing major challenges in the race for his party's presidential nomination. He is largely unknown there, has little infrastructure, and has just 10 days to establish himself.
But he was upbeat after finishing behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, both of whom sought the 2008 nomination.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I think we're in the hunt," Huntsman said, playing off his campaign's frequent call to "Join the Hunt."
Huntsman, 51, who skipped the Iowa caucuses and pinned his hopes on a strong showing in New Hampshire, entered the race last summer to high expectations, but he struggled from the start to win over conservative Republican voters. He repeatedly told voters that he wouldn't "set his hair on fire" to earn applause or votes and cast himself as the voice of reason in a campaign season he likened to the reality show "Survivor."
Huntsman had started to show signs of gaining ground in the last few days, however, after a strong performance in Sunday's debate and after making an aggressive play for independents, who could vote in either primary Tuesday. He held more than 170 public events in the state, including about 50 in the last two weeks, and said that experience reaffirmed his confidence in the political process.
"We proved the point that this state wants its candidates to earn it the old fashioned way, handshake by handshake, conversation by conversation," he said, joined on stage by his wife, Mary Kaye, his parents, and his three oldest daughters. Mrs. Huntsman and the daughters have been a fixture on the campaign trail, with the daughters earning attention with their "jon2012" Twitter account and online videos.
On Tuesday night, they stood in front of a huge sign featuring Huntsman's new slogan, "Country First," which he started using after Romney criticized him for serving as President Barack Obama's ambassador to China. Huntsman, who also served as ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush, answered that he put his country first while Romney was "raising money" for Republican candidates, and told supporters that Americans prefer the former, not the latter.
"They're tired of being divided. They want leadership that will stand up and tell us, first and foremost, we need to come together as Americans in order to solve our problems," he said, as the crowd chanted the slogan.