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Huntsman: 'We're going to surprise a lot of people'

Published: Monday, Jan. 9 2012 8:27 p.m. MST

Republican presidential candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman rallies supporters as he campaigns in Eagle Square on January 09, 2012 in Concord, New Hampshire. Polls show Huntsman gaining ground on front runner Mitt Romney ahead of Tuesday's primary.

Matthew Cavanaugh, Getty Images

EXETER, N.H. — Jon Huntsman Jr.'s final rally before Tuesday's primary election looked a lot like a victory party as red, white and blue confetti fell on the cheering crowd that filled this revolutionary town's historic town hall.

"Can you feel the energy?" the former Utah governor asked, his voice cracking after spending more than 12 hours Monday crisscrossing the state to meet with voters. "Something is happening out there."

Exactly what outcome Huntsman can hope for in the second test of candidates for the 2012 GOP nomination is not clear. He has moved up in the polls but appears to be competing for third place behind Mitt Romney and Ron Paul.

"I have no idea what it will be (Tuesday) night," Huntsman told several hundred supporters, volunteers and area residents filling the town hall's stage, floor and balconies. "But I do know this: We're going to surprise a lot of people."

Huntsman did, however, refer once in his rousing speech to "when we get to the end of the road, the White House," and talked of his campaign as a movement "that will take us all the way" just before the confetti fell and he plunged into the crowd.

Jay Childs, a documentary filmmaker from Exeter, said Huntsman is "the only one of the Republican candidates who I guess I respect."

Childs, an independent voter, said he liked Huntsman's message that the nation needs to pull together.

"The whole idea that we've lost the sense we're Americans, not just Republicans and Democrats, it sounds like a lot of 'kumbaya' stuff," he explained. "But to me it's more important than any policy."

In past races, Childs said he's supported both Republicans and Democrats.

"I don't agree with a lot of what Huntsman has to say," he said. "He's more conservative than I am. I'm not a liberal, but I'm willing to meet him halfway."

Independent voters such as Childs, who can register as Republicans before casting their primary ballots Tuesday, make up much of Huntsman's support. But University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said he needs mainstream Republicans, too.

"It would make the difference between a good night and a great night," Scala said. 

Unless more of the GOP faithful shift their support from the other candidates in the race, especially Romney, Scala said Huntsman may not have the momentum he needs to continue as a candidate.

"Third place is sort of a moral victory at this point, but it's not something that takes him anywhere," Scala said. "A strong second is what he needs … within striking distance of Mitt Romney."

Romney's lead has narrowed, likely leaving Huntsman to battle for third place with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who barely lost last week's Iowa caucus vote to Romney.

Earlier Monday in Concord, a seemingly confident Huntsman was already looking forward to the next stop on the presidential campaign trail, South Carolina.

At a rally just across the street from New Hampshire's gold-domed state Capitol, Huntsman told reporters he has to meet expectations in Tuesday's primary. But he stopped short of saying where he needs to finish.

"Our strategy moving forward is getting a head of steam out of New Hampshire," he said. "We've got to prove the point of electability here. This is why the New Hampshire primary is so important."

Huntsman has staked his presidential bid on a strong showing in New Hampshire, holding some 170 events here. He skipped Iowa's GOP caucuses and moved his headquarters from Florida to downtown Manchester, N.H.

Top Huntsman adviser John Weaver, who played a key role in Arizona Sen. John McCain's 2000 and 2008 presidential races, said the campaign is ready to head on to South Carolina for the Jan. 21 primary election.