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Jon Huntsman banks on his 'Reagan moment' in New Hampshire (+video)

Jon Huntsman appears to have made inroads with New Hampshire primary voters during a heated exchange with Mitt Romney Sunday. But time is running out.

By Staff writer / January 9, 2012

US Republican presidential candidate and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman gestures during a town hall meeting in Exeter, N.H., Monday.

Adam Hunger/REUTERS

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Newport, N.H.

It’s been a long march out of obscurity, but former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. may have found his “Reagan moment” in New Hampshire.

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During a famous 1980 debate in Nashua, N.H., candidate Ronald Reagan barked at a moderator who was attempting to shut off the sound, “I’m paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”  

The audience roared and George Bush, the front-runner, never recovered from that moment, which came to define the challenger as the stronger of the two.

Now, thanks to a rare flare-up with front-runner Mitt Romney in Sunday morning’s NBC presidential debate, New Hampshire residents are abuzz about a Huntsman outburst. During a Huntsman campaign stop outside Marie’s Bakery in Henniker, N.H., Monday morning, patrons chanted his words: “Country first! Country first!”  

“This is a turning point,” says Wayne Lesperance, a political scientist at New England College in Henniker, who was present at the event and confirms that the chanters were not campaign staff or even typically involved in politics. “Whether it’s too little, too late remains to be seen.”

Huntsman's "my country first" moment began in Saturday night's debate, when Mr. Romney attacked him for serving as US ambassador to China under President Obama

“You were, the last two years, implementing the policies of this administration in China," said Romney. "The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward.” 

On Sunday, Huntsman returned to that exchange at his first opportunity.

“I was criticized last night by Governor Romney for putting my country first,” he said. “He criticized me, while he was out raising money, for serving my country in China – yes, under a Democrat, like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They’re not asking who … [or] what political affiliation the president is. And I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country: I will always put my country first.”

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