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Jon Huntsman hopes to build steam in NH primary

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CONCORD, N.H. — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman says if he can just chug out of the New Hampshire primary "with a head of steam," he can prove he's the Republican candidate able to defeat Barack Obama.

With Mitt Romney favored in Tuesday's voting and most of the rest of the field vying to become the conservative alternative, Huntsman is taking a different path. What the GOP needs is a nominee who "can reach beyond just the Republican Party" to win over lots of Obama's 2008 voters, Huntsman said Tuesday, boasting of his appeal to independents and even some Democrats.

He reveled in a minuscule victory in the first voting of the primary. Tiny Dixville Notch cast its ballots at midnight — and Huntsman scored a tie with Romney, at two votes each. It may be a harbinger, Huntsman declared.

Huntsman, who skipped the Iowa caucuses to stake his candidacy on a strong showing in Tuesday's primary, has struggled to win over New Hampshire's conservative Republicans. He's been making an aggressive play for independent voters, who can vote in the GOP primary, and has shown signs of gaining ground in the last few days.

Huntsman, 51, also has been making the most of his weekend debate response to front-runner Mitt Romney, who criticized Huntsman for serving as the Obama administration's ambassador to China.

Huntsman quickly adopted Sen. John McCain's old campaign slogan "Country First" and had large signs displaying that message at his final campaign event Monday night, a rally in Exeter. He told the crowd to remember the word "trust" when they vote Tuesday, saying it encompasses his entire campaign.

"We're going to surprise the heck out of 'em!" he insisted.

That confidence was reminiscent of the Huntsman who proclaimed months ago that he would win the New Hampshire primary. But he switched to predictions about "beating market expectations," and two weeks ago suggested that anything below a third-place finish in New Hampshire would mean an end to his campaign.

On Tuesday, Huntsman declined to say just how well he must do to hang on. "If we can move out of New Hampshire with a head of steam we can prove the issue of electability," he told NBC's "Today" show.

In the past week, Huntsman cast himself as the underdog fighting against Romney, whom he called the "status quo candidate." After he campaigned in seven communities Monday, Huntsman's only public appearance scheduled Tuesday is a noontime visit to a Manchester polling place.