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Former US envoy to China Jon Huntsman's presidential campaign won a reprieve Tuesday as he battled to third place in New Hampshire, but he remains a long-shot challenger to frontrunner Mitt Romney.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I think we're in the hunt," Romney told supporters as with 84 percent of the ballots counted he had harnessed 17 percent of the vote.
"I'd say third place is a ticket to ride," he added, vowing his campaign would now move on to the next vote less than two weeks away in South Carolina.
The former Utah governor, scion of one of America's richest families, saw his support rise steadily in the final days before the primary and a surprisingly strong finish could give him a much-needed boost.
Huntsman skipped Iowa's caucus last week and bet his presidential fortunes on a strong showing here, going forward to the next contest in South Carolina on January 21 and Florida on January 31.
He has been playing up his cross-party appeal, telling NBC that "in order to beat Barack Obama, the bottom line... is you've actually got to convince some people who voted for Barack Obama last time to vote for you.
"That's just the mathematical reality," said Huntsman, who held more than 170 rallies, town hall meetings and other events in New Hampshire over the past few months, with his wife Mary Kaye often his strongest advocate.
His rise in the polls came after he struck back hard in a Sunday debate at Romney's charge that his service as Obama's first envoy to Beijing should disqualify him from being the party's standard-bearer.
"I will always put my country first," said Huntsman, who made "Country First" his new slogan and vowed first to restore both the US economy and the US public's failed trust in its political elites.
Huntsman, 51, also slammed his fellow Mormon over jobs lost while Romney headed the Bain Capital investment firm and pounced on his rival's comment -- made while describing hopes that consumers could get the upper hand on health insurance firms -- that "I like being able to fire people."
Romney "enjoys firing people, I enjoy creating jobs," Huntsman charged, adding the comment showed his rival was "slightly out of touch."
Partial results from Tuesday's New Hampshire primary showed Romney winning with 39 percent, libertarian Representative Ron Paul second with 23 percent and Huntsman in third.
"The people of this great nation, the greatest nation that ever was, they're tired of being divided. They want leadership that will stand up and tell us all that first and foremost, we need to come together as Americans in order to solve our problems," Huntsman told cheering supporters late Tuesday.
Kelly Carter, who attended one of Huntsman's rallies on Monday, said: "I liked what his daughters said about him, I made up my mind last night. Romney is too plastic, too perfect for me."
But going forward to South Carolina, Huntsman faces an uphill battle with the polls showing him trailing at the bottom of the pack with some four percent.
On paper he should have shone, but the conservative governor of a well-run state and two-time ambassador with business experience may have misjudged a Republican electorate eager more for red-meat attacks on Obama than his own steady-as-she-goes approach.
"I'm not gonna light my hair on fire," he said in October. "I don't think you have to be crazy to be in the Republican Party."
And in a much-noticed tweet in August, Huntsman broke with the Republican base, saying: "I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."
Huntsman, who has not ruled out a 2016 run, had a tender response Tuesday when asked what would be a good finish here. One that "puts a smile on Mary Kaye's face," he replied.
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