Huntsman insists he’s staying in race despite third-place NH finish

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Jon Huntsman says he’s staying in the GOP presidential race despite finishing third in New Hampshire's primary.

"I'd say third place is a ticket to ride. On to South Carolina," he told supporters at his election-night party.

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The former Utah governor was battling it out for second place with Ron Paul, but with 51 percent of precincts reporting, he had 17 percent to Paul's 23 percent. Mitt Romney took first in New Hampshire, as expected.

Huntsman trailed him by 20 points.

A campaign official told The Hill that Huntsman, who staked his campaign on a strong showing in New Hampshire, would head to South Carolina on Wednesday.

Huntsman called Romney to congratulate him, according to another campaign official. He said Huntsman told Romney, "Congratulations, you're a good man. You looked great with your family on stage. We'll see you in South Carolina."

Questions about Huntsman’s viability were already being raised on cable television news networks monitoring the returns. Huntsman didn’t compete in last week’s Iowa caucuses, where evangelical Christian voters hold more sway, and instead focused his energies on Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary.

There are expected to be comparisons to Michele Bachmann, whose presidential campaign depended on doing well in Iowa. After a disappointing fifth place in the caucuses last week, she originally said she would stay in the race, only to drop out the next day.

Exit polls from the news networks show that Huntsman got the support of many Independent voters — who can register to vote in a party primary on the day of the contest. Plus, exit polling shows his strongest supporters say they are "satisfied" with President Obama's policies and "strongly oppose" the conservative Tea Party grassroots movement.

Neither of those types of voters are likely to be dominate in South Carolina's primary.

Huntsman campaign manager Matt David said their message of "country first" will resonate with South Carolina voters and help them in the conservative state.

"Campaigns are won on two things: message and momentum," he said, noting that Huntsman polled at 7 percent in New Hampshire last Friday and would finish in the race at near 20 percent.

"We've just got to continue to build on this momentum," he said.

David said Huntsman has "one of the best ground games" in South Carolina.

Asked how much money the campaign has, he said, "We'll have the resources we need to compete."

Even before voting began in New Hampshire, Huntsman supporters argued a third-place finish to Paul could be considered second place, given the Texas congressman's standing with establishment Republicans.

Huntsman told CNN on Wednesday night there "are three tickets out of New Hampshire," and his campaign is telling reporters they are happy with the momentum they gained over the past few days.

"Where we stand right now is a solid, comfortable, confident position. And we go south from here," he said.

Polling showed the former governor has gone from single digits to double digits in New Hampshire in the past few weeks. He was also endorsed by the Boston Globe — Romney's hometown paper — but it wasn't enough to give him the silver medal.

The Huntsman family, including his wife and father, took the stage to U2's "It's a Beautiful Day."

His supporters shouted "on the hunt" as he took the stage.

Before he arrived, his supporters tried to keep an enthusiastic atmosphere at the election-night party. They shouted "country first" and rang a cow bell, but the shouting quickly quieted as attendees awaited Huntsman's arrival.

News of Romney's victory barely caused a ripple at the event, given that the former Massachusetts governor was widely expected to win.

Members of the media easily outnumbered supporters at the party, which took place at the Black Brimmer in downtown Manchester.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who endorsed Romney, claimed Huntsman is the media's favorite candidate when he was campaigning for Romney in New Hampshire on Sunday.

"I don’t think he’s a good candidate so I don’t think you’re going to see him do anything. He’s a good media candidate. The media loves him," Christie said according to reports.

This story was originally posted at 8:45 p.m. and has been updated.