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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.
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 downtown, "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 independent 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 KSL News that No. 3 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 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.
Truibiaro 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