MANCHESTER, N.H. — For Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, Jr., and supporters at his election night party, a third-place showing in the New Hampshire primary felt like a victory.
The candidate’s backers — some who live in the area, some who came from afar to work on his campaign — packed The Black Brimmer American Bar & Grill on Tuesday to show solidarity with the former Utah governor in his presidential bid.
Polls had shown former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with a commanding lead in the GOP primary, but supporters had hopes that Huntsman would finish in second and have enough momentum to continue through the campaign.
The temperature was almost balmy for a New England winter, but party attendees were clad in sweaters, coats and scarves as they discussed the campaign and enjoyed drinks. Many wore black campaign buttons with a red “H” stamped in the center to showcase support for the candidate.
TVs in the restaurant were tuned to CNN, MSNBC and FOX News broadcasting election results, but the noise in the bar made comments from analysts inaudible.
Speaking to the Washington Blade as they awaited the results, Huntsman supporters at the party said his background as a chief executive of Utah as well as U.S. ambassador to China makes him the ideal candidate.
Shane Feifer, a 19-year-old straight student at George Washington University, said he was drawn to support Huntsman because of his character and foreign policy work.
“I feel like he’s a pragmatic, practical individual who actually thinks about his politics,” Feifer said. “Also, I’m a student of international affairs, so I have to love his international policy. I was in China in April when he was moving out. That’s my area of study, and I’m just very impressed with everything he’s done.”
Having traveled to New Hampshire to support Huntsman, Feifer said he arrived at the election night party after wearing himself out with campaign efforts.
“You can tell by my voice, I’m dying,” Feifer said. “We did rallies, phones, calls, walked the streets waving signs. You know, the whole shebang.”
Huntsman — a favorite among gay Republicans — stands out among other Republican candidates for expressing support for certain gay rights over his previous terms in public service and over the course of his campaign.
The candidate has endorsed civil unions and supported the general notion of moving toward equality. Unlike other candidates, Huntsman made no commitment to back a U.S. constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage throughout the country.
Josh Sacks, a 24-year-old straight IT consultant who’s volunteering for Huntsman, said the candidate’s position on gay rights was important in his decision to back him.
“I’m not a social conservative by any means,” Sacks said. “I support gay rights. I would even go so far as to say I support gay marriage. The fact that he is open to it, that he does not discriminate and supports civil unions, draws him even closer to that moderate center, and, I think, attracts a lot of independents.”
Don Khoury, a 40-year-old straight business consultant from Boston, said he values the candidate’s consistency on the issues.
“I think he appeals to everybody, whether it’s gender, sexual orientation, nationality, culture,” Khoury said. “He just inspires people, and I think part of the reason he inspires is because he’s honest and transparent. What you see is what you get. He’s not going to say one thing to one group, and something to another.”
Khoury said he’s confident that Huntsman will be able to move forward in the campaign — and could have enough momentum to become the GOP nominee — because of his gay support.
“Any campaign that I have worked on — in Canada, I haven’t worked on many here — where there’s a significant gay population working on the campaign: that guy wins,” Khoury said. “They know how to organize.”
Still, there’s a limit to how far Huntsman will go on gay rights. During a recent debate, Huntsman said he’s a “traditionalist” on marriage and thinks it “ought to be saved for one man and one woman.” Huntsman has also said he thinks the Defense of Marriage Act “serves a useful purpose.”
News outlets declared Romney the winner early in the evening, but the news barely seemed to register among the crowd. For a moment Huntsman shot up to second place, inspiring a cheer from one supporter watching the results. But that moment faded as news outlets declared libertarian Rep. Ron Paul would come in second place, leaving Huntsman with the bronze medal.
But those at the party didn’t lose their zeal. A young campaign worker distributed red signs reading, “Huntsman: Country First.” Supporters waived them in the air as they chanted the campaign slogan, “Country First! Country First!”
A voice from overhead speakers announced the Huntsman family before they went onstage, then, another message came announcing the candidate and his wife, Mary Kaye Cooper, prompting the crowd to cheer.
On stage, Huntsman said his campaign strategy in New Hampshire of directly engaging with state voters was responsible for his showing. The candidate touted at least 170 public events he made in the state and said no other candidate “even came close.”
“We’ve proved the point that this state wants its candidates to earn it the old-fashioned way,” Huntsman said. “That’s on the ground, handshake by handshake, conversation by conversation, vote by vote. We got it done, ladies and gentlemen!”
Huntsman took jibes at President Obama, criticizing the administration for the country’s $15 trillion in debt and continued military engagement overseas.
“Afghanistan is not our nation’s future, and Iraq is not this nation’s future,” Huntsman said. “Our nation’s future is how prepared we are to rise up as the American people and hit head on the competitive challenges of the 21st century.”
Making a reference to his service in China, Huntsman warned that the path the country is following will result in ending America’s role in world leadership.
“This is going to play out in the Pacific Ocean with countries that I have lived in before,” Huntsman said. “And … if we don’t get our act together at home, we will see the end of the American century by 2050, and we are not going to let that happen, are we?”
Huntsman also articulated points about his vision for the country, including term limits for federal lawmakers, prohibiting members of Congress from working as lobbyists right after their tenure and bringing U.S. troops home from Afghanistan.
Praising New Hampshire residents, Huntsman said they come to town halls, even though they aren’t required to do so, because “they believe in a better tomorrow for the United States of America.” An attendee in the audience responded with a shout, “And they believe in Jon Huntsman!” triggering applause from the audience.
But Huntsman concluded with the most important message to his followers that evening: he was going to continue his race onto the next contest in South Carolina.
“Here we sit tonight, ladies and gentlemen, with a ticket to ride and to move on,” Huntsman said. “Here we go to South Carolina!”
Huntsman joined hands with his wife as they both raised their arms overhead in a cheer. Streamers exploded from the ceiling, raining red and white confetti to the ground as Huntsman shook hands with supporters closest to the stage.
The third-place showing also was apparently satisfactory for Tim Miller, Huntsman’s communications director. Following the Huntsman speech, he declared to reporters in the media center, “On Friday, if you would have told me we’d be at 17 percent, I would have said you’re F-ing crazy! F-ing crazy!”
Victory next week for Huntsman there — or even a third place showing — will be a challenge. He’s ranking at the bottom of the pack in polls with less than 5 percent of support in the conservative state and is well behind Romney, who seems poised to take another win.
But that isn’t discouraging his supporters.
Joey Kalmin, a 20-year-old University of Maryland student from Island Park, Ill., said the strong showing in New Hampshire and speech fired him up enough to believe that victory in the primary season — and beyond — will happen for Huntsman.
“He’s going to go all the way to the White House,” Kalmin said. “He’s going to have his right hand raised to God on the west side of the Capitol Building on Jan. 20, 2013. Definitely. No doubt about it. He’s gonna win.”