MANCHESTER, N.H. - Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman struggled to speak to voters at a Manchester polling place this afternoon as the police tried, unsuccessfully, to keep throngs of media from crowding around him.
“Who would have imagined anything like this?” Huntsman asked. The crowd chanted, “Go, Jon, go.”
Huntsman, polling in the single digits for months, seemed thrilled with the attention he is finally getting, as polls show him moving into third place in New Hampshire. “We’ve given the state our heart and soul. That’s all you can do,” Huntsman said. “We’ll wait and see what it means tonight.”
Huntsman remains far behind frontrunner and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, but his campaign is hoping he can surpass Texas Representative Ron Paul to take second place when the results of the primary come in tonight.
Huntsman ate lunch at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, in an unannounced visit. His only public event before this evening’s party was his visit to the polling place. Huntsman, with his wife Mary Kaye at his side, said he believes he can generate the same excitement elsewhere in the country that he has during the last few days in New Hampshire. “I think we’re going to perform well tonight, then it’s onward and upward to South Carolina,” he said.
Asked what message he would bring with him from New Hampshire, Huntsman responded, “A live free or die attitude,” citing the state’s motto.
Huntsman said, “I love the voters of this state. They give it their all. We’ve given it our all. When both sides have given it their all, I can’t help but think that we’re doing pretty well.”
Webster School, which Romney and Newt Gingrich also visited today, turned into a gathering place for activists from all over the country. A high school AP government class from New York boosted the crowds cheering for Huntsman and Paul. College student Tyler Martell traveled from Wisconsin to support Huntsman, and rattled off Huntsman’s talking points against Romney: “Two candidates can beat Barack Obama. One was number one on job creation; one was number 47. One reformed health care without a mandate, one did the same thing as Obama.”
Dustin Walker, 22, who works on Capitol Hill, cut short his Christmas break in Idaho to volunteer for Romney. “He brings unique skills and experience to the table,” Walker said. “His economic plans are realistic, not filled with overblown promises.”
New Hampshire voters were more difficult to find, and few were as passionate as the activists. Republican Valerie Tarbell, a teacher from Manchester, said she did not decide until she was inside the voting booth who to support – Romney, Huntsman, or former House speaker Newt Gingrich. She declined to say who she chose. “I know politicians say what people want to hear. It makes me nervous,” Tarbell said. “Our economy and jobs depend on getting the right president.”
Executive Councilor Ray Wieczorek, a Romney supporter, said in his 52 years living in the ward, he had never seen the polling place quite so filled with activity. “People say do you think it’s crazy? I think it’s good,” Wieczorek said. “There’s a lot of interest in the state, the country, the world. It’s good for people from around the world to see how the process works.”
Shira Schoenberg can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.