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MANCHESTER, N.H. — Jon Huntsman Jr. called his third-place finish Tuesday in the nation's first presidential primary "a ticket to ride" on to South Carolina, the next state to vote in the race for the GOP nomination.
His campaign had hoped that Huntsman could come in a close second behind primary winner Mitt Romney, the other candidate in the race with Utah ties.
Instead, Huntsman trailed both Romney and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich was fourth.
In a fundraising email sent early Wednesday, Huntsman said he's hitting "the ground running" in South Carolina. "Then it's off to Florida and beyond. There's a long way to go, but we're confident that our message and our momentum from (Tuesday's election) will continue into South Carolina."
Dave Woodard, a politicial science professor at Clemson University and a South Carolina pollster, wasn't so sure.
"It's a ticket to ride for Jon Huntsman. It's a freight train for Mitt Romney," Woodard said of the New Hampshire primary results. "We'll see what happens down here."
Huntsman had a welcome event scheduled at the Columbia, S.C., airport midday Wednesday, but Woodard said he may have difficulties attracting a crowd because four other candidates are also campaigning in the state capital.
Tuesday, flanked by his parents, his wife, and his three oldest daughters, Huntsman tried to sound upbeat as he told a crowd gathered at the Black Brimmer bar and grill in downtown Manchester, "We're in the hunt!"
But missing from his speech was the enthusiasm of the past few days, when an uptick in the polls drew bigger crowds and more media to his public appearances and allowed Huntsman to finally claim momentum in the race.
There were cheers and chants from the crowd at the bar and grill, but the event fell short of the send-off Huntsman received at his final campaign rally held at the Exeter town hall Monday night, where there were more people, more noise and even more confetti.
"Huntsman put the best face on it he could," said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala. "But it's a big disappointment."
Scala said he did not expect Huntsman to continue his candidacy.
"Candidates say a lot of things on election night that they think over," he said.
Tim Baines, a bank branch manager, said he also believed Huntsman would drop out of the race.
Baines, an independent, said he'd voted for a Democrat four years ago, President Barack Obama, but this time cast his ballot for Huntsman.
"There's something enticing about him as a person. He leaves the rhetoric at the door, doesn't say the inflammatory things that a lot of the other candidates do, and certainly has a great record of leading in Utah," Baines said.
He said even though he was undecided about voting again for Obama, Huntsman was the only Republican he could back.
Scala said Huntsman succeeded in attracting independents and Democrats who switched their party affiliation to vote in the GOP primary. But, he said, Huntsman failed to woo more than a small percentage of Republicans.
"You can't win the nomination if you can't win over the people in your own party," Scala said. "I don't know where you go with that."
Huntsman had staked his campaign on a strong showing in New Hampshire, skipping last week's Iowa caucus votes and even moving his headquarters from Florida to downtown Manchester.
Yet despite holding nearly 170 events throughout the state, he was never a favorite to win here.
NBC's chief political correspondent, Chuck Todd, said Tuesday's results hurt Huntsman.
"It's going to be a tough battle for Jon Huntsman," Todd said. "He lived here. He planted a flag here, and he finished third."
GOP pollster Frank Luntz told the Deseret News that the No. 3 finish gives Huntsman's campaign "permission to go on to South Carolina. They wanted a rocket boost with second place. They did well enough."
His recent rise in the polls helped convince at least one voter to stick with Huntsman.
Donald Byrne, a software executive, had said days ago he was having second thoughts about Huntsman because he seemed like too much of a long shot. But Byrne said Tuesday he cast his vote for Huntsman.
"I was teetering toward Gingrich," Byrne said, until Huntsman's numbers started climbing.
"You want to cast your vote for a winner," he said, acknowledging Huntsman would have trouble with voters in South Carolina. "Maybe we can give him a boost. Maybe we can tell them to at least take a look at this guy. If you look at him, you're going to like him."
Tony Trubiaro, a salesman, grabbed Huntsman for a hug when he spotted him in a hotel lobby before the election results were in. "Make it happen," Trubiaro told Huntsman.
Trubiaro said he didn't vote for Romney, "because he's going to win this thing anyway. Let's see how far (Huntsman) can go. His passion and energy — I really like this guy."
There was no shortage of excitement surrounding Tuesday's primary. Voters at a school near downtown were separated by barricades from the hordes of reporters and candidate supporters gathered outside.
The Webster Elementary School was the site of visits by several candidates throughout Tuesday morning, including Huntsman, who walked up and down one of the sectioned-off areas, answering questions from reporters.
Meanwhile, Romney supporters in the crowd were yelling, "Go, Mitt, go," over and over, while the Huntsman backers strained to get a look at the candidate. Dressed in a red parka, with his wife, Mary Kaye, at his side, Huntsman looked relatively relaxed.
His staff said he was in an upbeat mood, following several days rising in the polls.
Josh Sacks, an IT consultant from Arlington, Va., who took vacation time to volunteer for Huntsman in New Hampshire, said he's excited to see the results of today's GOP primary election.
"I think he's going to be surprising a lot of people tonight," Sacks said, predicting "a strong second place" finish for Huntsman.
Sacks said he joined the campaign because he believes Huntsman is "the only candidate with the experience and intellect to get us out of the hole we're in."
Some of the voters at the polling site simply shook their heads and hurried by the assembled television cameras and journalists as Manchester police — including two officers on horseback — kept the pathways to the polls clear.
"I think this is expected," Jessica Gilcrest, a school librarian, said about the circus-like atmosphere. "People get passionate about what they believe in. There's nothing wrong with that."
Gilcrest decined to say who she voted for, but said she told her two young children accompanying her that "it's our responsiblity to pick a leader." The toddlers, however, appeared more interested in the police horses.
Eleanor Dunfey, however, had no problem telling reporters she voted in the Democratic primary even though President Barack Obama faces no opposition for his party's nomination.
Dunfey said she never considered voting in the GOP primary but did like Huntsman after seeing him speak at the Southern New Hampshire University commencement, where she is a professor of business ethics.
"I respect him. The rest of (the Republican field), I've been disturbed by the lack of substance," Dunfey said. "I don't think the focus is on the serious issues of the world."