MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman put a brave face on a third-place finish in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday that kept him in the White House race but raised questions about how much longer he can hold on.
After campaigning almost exclusively in New Hampshire in recent months, Huntsman pulled in 17 percent, with votes counted from two-thirds of the state’s precincts.
That was better than his showing in many opinion polls but still short of the kind of strong surge he needed to present a big threat to front-runner Mitt Romney.
Huntsman is likely to struggle at the next primary on January 21 in South Carolina, where traditionally conservative voters are unlikely to embrace his positions like support for gay civil unions and pulling out of Afghanistan as soon as possible.
“I’d say third place is a ticket to ride, ladies and gentleman,” Huntsman told supporters after results came in on Tuesday, promising to head to South Carolina.
Huntsman traveled thousands of miles criss-crossing New Hampshire since May in a black SUV, attending almost 170 events in his strategy to concentrate on retail politics in a state where Republican voters are moderate and independent thinkers.
He received a last minute boost in polls with a nicely landed punch in a debate last weekend against Romney, who had chided him for working as ambassador to China for President Barack Obama.
Huntsman responded that he was serving his country while Romney was spending years trolling for campaign donations after a failed 2008 bid for the White House. The crack drew one of the biggest rounds of applause.
“Since Sunday morning’s debate, that day we quadrupled our best ever fund-raising day,” Michael Levoff, Huntsman’s New Hampshire campaign spokesman, told Reuters. “We will have the resources to compete in South Carolina and Florida,” he said.
Huntsman has also been at the forefront of attacks against Romney for his role as a venture capitalist in the 1990s.
It was just a few weeks ago that Huntsman made a plea on Facebook for $100,000 in campaign donations so he could buy television advertising in New Hampshire.
The money dribbled in over several days after the candidate offered to match donations, and the TV spots ran - emphasizing Huntsman’s credentials as a “true conservative.”
Much interest has centered on the SuperPAC funding group that has been backing Huntsman with television ads describing frontrunner Romney as a “chameleon” and whether the candidate’s billionaire father, businessman Jon Huntsman Sr, was bankrolling the group.
Editing by Alistair Bell and Todd Eastham