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  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Jon Huntsman is surrounded by the media during a brief stop at the Webster Elementary School in Manchester Tuesday, January 10, 2012.
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel>br>

    Jon Huntsman is mobbed at the Webster Elementary School in Manchester on Primary day, January 10, 2012
  • Staff photo by Don Himsel

    Jon Huntsman makes time for last minute handshakes at the Webster Elementary School in Manchester Tuesday, January 10, 2012.
Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Huntsman surge personified at Manchester appearance

MANCHESTER – If the rising poll numbers didn’t give Jon Huntsman supporters hope heading into Tuesday’s primary election, the turnout at Manchester’s Webster Elementary School did.

Dozens of Huntsman supporters and volunteers packed the school yard outside one of Manchester’s most populous polling places Tuesday afternoon, quieting rival camps with their spirited cheers.

“Join the Hunt,” the crowd shouted, outlasting rival cheers of “Go, Mitt, go,” from Mitt Romney supporters.

“I’ve lived in this district for 52 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” Ray Wieczorek, a state Executive Councilor and Romney supporter, said of the scene. “It’s just crazy.”

The throngs of volunteers, joined by dozens of media, quieted briefly as Huntsman, the former Utah governor, arrived at the school just after noontime in his only public appearance of the day. They crowded around him as he prepared to offer a few remarks, leaving little room to breath, let alone hear the candidate.

“I couldn’t get anywhere near him. I didn’t hear a word he said,” one supporter said after Huntsman left the scene.

“I would have needed a ladder to see him,” added Connie George a volunteer from Manchester. “I can’t believe I missed it.”

Such a scene was hardly imaginable a week ago as Huntsman struggled to draw the voters’ attention. The former governor, who also served as the United States’ ambassador to China, has devoted his campaign completely to New Hampshire. He has held more than 150 public events in the state – far more than any other candidate – and in the fall, he moved his campaign headquarters from Florida to Manchester.

For months, his efforts yielded few results as he struggled to break single digits in most state polls. As recently as last week, Huntsman campaigned in Nashua, recruiting votes one at a time from an electorate that hardly recognized him.

One man, eating in Norton’s Classic Cafe on Main Street, mistook Huntsman for New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch.

In the days since, however, Huntsman has started to see some movement in the polls. He has risen steadily over the last week, according to Suffolk University’s daily tracking numbers, and on Tuesday, for the first time, he moved within reach of Texas Congressman Ron Paul for second place.

According to Tuesday’s numbers, 16 percent of the voters surveyed support Huntsman, down two percent from Paul’s 18. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leads the poll with 37 percent, according to the most recent figures.

“People are starting to figure it out. I’d be surprised if he didn’t finish a strong second,” said Howard Gold, a volunteer who came up from Sudbury, Mass. to offer his support.

“There’s so much energy, I can feel it,” added Deborah Wilder, who flew across the country from San Mateo, Calif. to volunteer for Huntsman. “I saw this guy and I thought ‘he’s a game-changer, and I want to be there to help him.”

Supporters acknowledge that, with Romney’s steep lead, first place may be out of reach for Huntsman, but they hope a strong second- or third-place showing would give him a jump heading into South Carolina and the other upcoming states.

Some analysts believe that anything less than second could leave Huntsman behind for good.

“I really think he needs something really surprising, a second place win, to really get people’s attention,” said Dean Spiliotes, a professor of political science at Southern New Hampshire University.

“If he finishes in third, that may be enough to keep him in for another contest, but it would still be third,” said Spiliotes, author of the blog, “If he gets by Ron Paul in the upper teens or 20 percent, that might be something.”