CHARLESTON, S.C. - Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman finally stepped outside his comfort zone this week - and was pleasantly surprised.
As he campaigns outside of New Hampshire for the first time, the former Utah governor says he's pleased by the reception he is getting in socially conservative South Carolina. "Our events have been larger than I would have expected, and that's gratifying," he told reporters following a crowded town hall meeting at the Honeycomb Cafe.
"And I think we've gone from margin-of-error, that's where we were in New Hampshire, to what is a respectable early number. And it gives me hope that maybe something can come of all this."
Until now, Huntsman had campaigned almost exclusively in New Hampshire, where he staked his bid on a good showing in that state's first-in-the-nation primary Tuesday. Huntsman came in third, behind front-runner Mitt Romney and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, but by getting 17 percent of the vote, he did better than pre-primary polls had indicated he would do.
On Wednesday, Huntsman said that his expectations in the Palmetto State would be "very low" compared to what they were in New Hampshire. His support in South Carolina is only in single digits, according to recent polls.
But he has been drawing standing-room-only crowds at most of his campaign stops, albeit in small venues. Over 200 people turned out to hear him speak Wednesday at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Key lines in his stump speeches that fell flat in New Hampshire are being met with laughter and applause in South Carolina.
Like other Romney rivals campaigning in South Carolina, Huntsman is also attacking the former Massachusetts governor on the stump, although unlike the others, he has not gone after him for his work in mergers and acquisitions when he ran Bain Capital in the 1980s. Rather, Huntsman is criticizing Romney for the health care plan he signed into law in Massachusetts, a precursor to President Obama's plan, and for his comment this week that he "likes firing people" who give him poor service, such as shoddy health insurance plans.
"When you have a candidate who talks about the enjoyment of firing people, who talks about pink slips, who makes comments that seem to be so detached from the problems that Americans are facing today, that makes you pretty much unelectable," Huntsman said. "And I say we want a nominee who can actually go on to win. That's the issue. It's not the kinds of transactions that Bain is responsible for."