Third Is Good Enough for Huntsman

Jon Huntsman said a third place finish in New Hampshire is good enough to give him a "ticket to ride" to the next primary in South Carolina. That's an interesting position for Huntsman, who many consider to be the most liberal candidate in the Republican bunch.

Huntsman poured basically his entire campaign effort into New Hampshire and only got to third. Why go forward? The short-term answer is that despite his third-place finish, Huntsman, the former governor of Utah who most recently was President Obama's ambassador to China, is riding out the end of a wave that lifted him up from the very bottom of the polls.

The real answer might be more ambitious: Huntsman, 51, might be thinking that he has a shot at winning the White House in four or eight years. South Carolina's primary will be followed closely by the contest in Florida, where Huntsman has a chance to do well - in 2016 or 2020.

As Mitt Romney will tell you, running for president can take years. In 2008, Romney bowed out of the primary to back John McCain - not exactly his best friend - to be at his disposal while he built relationships with key leaders in early primary states. Huntsman, who was the governor of Utah for four years, can find himself in the same situation as Romney was, provided that he is diplomatic (shouldn't be hard for a former ambassador) and exit the race as soon as Romney becomes the inevitable nominee.

"His name is going to come up next time, undoubtedly," said Quin Monson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University. "I think the key for Huntsman is to go out with dignity, and that might mean competing a couple more times … to not say or do anything at this point that alienates the people that are left."

Huntsman was the only candidate in the Republican field not to be swept to the forefront by Republican voters who couldn't make up their mind about choosing a conservative alternative to Romney - because Huntsman didn't run as a conservative, but rather as a moderate alternative. But he never made a gaffe or a statement that brought about disastrous press, and he didn't draw the ire of the other half-dozen candidates.

There simply wasn't room in the Republican field for another Mitt Romney - a rich, moderate, establishment Mormon with gray temples and ties to Democrats.

"He just picked the wrong time to jump in," said Matt Bennett, the communications director for Wesley Clark's 2004 campaign who now works for Third Way, a group that promotes centrist compromise. "You can't say he made any glaring mistakes because he never had enough oxygen to cause a fire."

In a speech to supporters Tuesday night, which carried the air of a victory speech, Huntsman proclaimed that he's "in the hunt" and that "third place is a ticket to ride." He also said in a TV interview that his campaign is in a "strong, comfortable, confident position."

Huntsman won only 17 percent of the vote in New Hampshire, significantly trailing Romney and Ron Paul. He wasn't the Rick Santorum of the Granite State - in other words, despite putting his focus solely on the one state, meeting people one at a time, he's unlikely to earn a place in Wednesday morning's headlines.

"It's just unfortunate that he's at the point now where he can't beat expectations," Monson said.