Making it into the top three was a major improvement for Huntsman, who had polled in the single digits until just last week. But it was a disappointment to his supporters who had hoped his recent upward trajectory would provide a Bill Clinton–esque "Comeback Kid" moment for the former Utah governor.
Huntsman cheered on his supporters at his campaign's victory party, in addition to the other way around, in his election-night speech in Manchester, calling his third-place finish "a ticket to ride."
"Ladies and gentlemen: I think we're in the hunt!" he said, igniting chants of "Join the Hunt!" from volunteers. Most important, he made it clear to all assembled that his campaign will go on from New Hampshire: "South Carolina, here we come!"
Although Huntsman finished well ahead of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, the former speaker and former senator have a clearer path to success in South Carolina, where their socially conservative campaigns and Gingrich's next-door-neighbor status (he represented Georgia in the House) make them a natural fit for the state whose GOP base is dominated by evangelical conservatives and enthusiastic Tea Party activists.
Huntsman's next chance to break out of the anybody-but-Romney pack may be in Florida's primary, which includes more moderate Northeastern transplants but will require much more of two resources he has been short on lately—money and manpower.
With Huntsman's better-than-expected, but less-than-hoped-for finish, his fans in New Hampshire said they could see other roles for him down the road.
Earl Rinker, a former Active Executive employee from Manchester, endorsed Huntsman because he said the former ambassador to China is the only candidate with foreign-policy experience who could also beat Barack Obama in November. "He's a good conservative who hasn't waffled the way Romney and Gingrich have," Rinker said, adding that he could see Huntsman as a future secretary of state or defense.
One of Huntsman's most significant challenges in New Hampshire, which will continue as long as he remains in the campaign, was the crowded field targeting moderate and independent voters. Ron Paul finished ahead with 32 percent of independents, followed by Romney, who won 29 percent, and Huntsman, who finished third with 23 percent.
One of those voters, Laura Scafati, 23, from Manchester, decided to support Huntsman over Paul, who was her second choice.
"Huntsman has international experience, he can reach across the aisle, and he just seemed like a really down-to-earth guy in the debates," Scafati said. As for Paul, she pointed to the scandal surrounding his past newsletters and his "unconventional, maybe a little bit wild" views on issues as the reasons she ultimately did not vote for him.
Huntsman shook off questions from reporters after his speech about whether he was disappointed by his finish. "Third place," he repeated, "is a ticket to ride."