CONCORD, N.H. — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman likes to express his excitement about running for president by exclaiming: "Gimme a break! It's the New Hampshire primary!"
It's part of the awestruck, aw-shucks shtick Huntsman uses in when he marvels at the small state's outsized influence on presidential politics. But it also sums up his whole campaign: He needs a break in New Hampshire to keep going.
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.
"It's going to take us all the way to the finish line tomorrow," he said, "and we're going to surprise the heck out of 'em!"
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.
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.
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