"There's not going to be a coronation, folks," Huntsman said in the coffee shop. "Can I feel the surge? Can I feel the energy on the ground? I can feel it."
In the final sprint, especially amid positive reviews for a weekend debate performance, Huntsman was drawing large crowds, a contrast to his months of speaking to mere handfuls of voters at events across the state. The latest polls found him battling libertarian Texas Rep. Ron Paul for second place here, though both trailed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney by a large margin.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich also are in the hunt in what amounts to a free-for-all for second and third place, said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center and the pollster for WMUR, the state's only broadcast TV station.
"All of the candidates behind Romney have a good chance of finishing anywhere between second and fifth place," Smith said.
On Monday, Huntsman and the other rivals got a gift from the gaffe gods who sometimes intervene late in campaigns: Romney, who is under attack for his former career as head of the corporate buyout firm Bain Capital, quipped that he liked "being able to fire people."
Romney was referring specifically to the importance of consumer choice in health insurance, saying that healthy competition in the market allows people to "fire" companies that don't provide superior service.
Yet the comment fed into a growing campaign narrative, pushed by his GOP challengers, that Romney was a heartless predator whose business cost hundreds of thousands of working-class jobs. Opponents pounced.
Interest in Huntsman, who has long been the favorite GOP candidate of independents and broad-minded Democrats, spiked after a strong moment in Sunday's televised debate on NBC's Meet the Press. He pushed back against Romney's attacks for his service as ambassador to China under President Obama. "I put my country first," Huntsman said, as the studio audience burst into applause.
"Country first! Country first!" supporters on the sidewalk outside Crosby's Bakery in Nashua chanted as Huntsman pulled up in his dusty SUV on Monday for a campaign stop. (Interestingly, that was also GOP nominee John McCain's slogan in 2008.)
"The headline Wednesday will be: 'New Hampshire upends conventional wisdom,' " Huntsman declared, shouldering through the crowd.
His hopes, polls suggest, rest on attracting unaffiliated voters; New Hampshire allows independents to participate in either party's nominating contest. Huntsman, who favors a faster U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, is competing hard for independents with other rivals, especially Paul, who pushes a noninterventionist foreign policy.
Thirty-eight percent of the voters who cast ballots in New Hampshire's 2008 Republican primary were independents, and the Huntsman campaign is pinning its hopes on a turnout of 45 percent of unaffiliated voters.
"Jon's a free trader, and he's an internationalist. That's a big fundamental difference between us and Ron Paul," said John Weaver, Huntsman's senior strategist. "And we don't have a conspiracy commission on our campaign, either."
Huntsman has alternated between touting his conservative credentials and blasting his own party as too extreme. Huntsman was a tax-cutting, pro-business governor, a post he held from 2005 to 2009, but he has moderate views on foreign policy, immigration and climate change, among other issues, and has not been as harsh in his attacks on President Obama as some of the field.
Analysts say that Huntsman's decision not to contest Iowa allowed Romney to consolidate moderate support as Huntsman dropped out of the news.
But "I have a feeling we are going beat market expectations," Huntsman said as he made his way out of the coffee house Sunday, nearly a hundred reporters and camera crews squeezing him like an anaconda.
Huntsman pressed a theme he has sounded before, that the GOP field has risked alienating swing voters by engaging in immigrant bashing and anti-gay rhetoric.
"We are sane when we stand up and talk about real solutions for the American people," he said. "We are insane when we stand up and light our hair on fire.. . .The American people need real ideas, and they ultimately want to be brought together."
Independent voter Sarah Emert of Chester, N.H., said she was sold after hearing Huntsman at BeanTowne.
"Some of the other candidates are too right-wing," she said. "He's more middle-of-the-road, and he doesn't seem to be as slanderous to the president."
Mohamed Motiwala was holding a Huntsman sign Monday outside Crosby's in Nashua.
"He's an intelligent person who understands the nuances of the world," said Motiwala, 30, a business consultant from Manchester. Obama must go, Motiwala added, because "his economic policies have failed."
Larry Stubbs said he felt he could trust Huntsman.
"I like his approach," said Stubbs, 62, a retired factory worker from Nashua. "He doesn't go off making rash statements that he can't defend or support."
Contact politics writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or firstname.lastname@example.org or @tomfitzgerald on Twitter. Read his blog, "The Big Tent," at www.philly.com/BigTent.