The Granite State Stakes

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Huntsman is rising, Romney is faltering, and there's a lot of uncertainty in the race for third in the front-runner's sure-thing state.

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EXETER, N.H. -- As the New Hampshire primary dawns, no candidate has more riding on the outcome than Jon Huntsman, who stood under a hail of red-white-and-blue confetti among a fired-up crowd Monday night as if he had already won.

Meanwhile, a few miles down state route 101, Mitt Romney was tangling with a heckler after a day spent explaining what he really meant when he uttered the words "I like to be able to fire people."

The front-runner taking fire, the underdog getting new consideration and three other candidates tussling for position: these are the stakes in this relatively low-intensity New Hampshire primary. Though a blowout Romney win has been presumed for months, the intrigue lies in how the rest of the multi-car pileup shakes out.

Here, a series of snapshots of the candidates' roles in the second GOP nominating contest.

JON HUNTSMAN:

Over the months that he has spent traversing this state to the exclusion of others, Huntsman has met a lot of skeptical voters and one openly hostile goat. But at the final hour, he has won over the goat -- and the voters may be breaking his way, too. First, the goat, a 2-year-old named Izak who lives in Dover as the housepet of roommates Bill Higgins and Judy Hammond: He bit Huntsman when they first met, but appeared at his final rally here draped in a red Huntsman T-shirt. Humans, too, appear to be rallying to Huntsman, many inspired by his zinger in Sunday morning's debate, when he responded to criticism of his service as President Obama's ambassador to China by saying, "I have always put my country first."

Huntsman's rally in the Exeter town hall was packed with a roaring, youthful crowd -- the least sedate audience this side of a Ron Paul event. The stagecraft would not have been out of place at a nominating convention -- bunting-draped balconies, pom-poms, signs reading "Country First," the bomber-jacketed candidate and his wife on a platform in the middle of the crowd rather than up on a stage. And confetti cannons, which fired as Huntsman finished his revved-up speech. "This divide stuff -- no more!" he said. "We're coming together as Americans to start solving our problems."

How well does he need to do? Huntsman's camp says they've already bought plane tickets for South Carolina. But unless he comes in a close third, going on will be tough to justify. Surging into second place and beating Ron Paul would truly make him a contender -- and, with his centrist pitch, a problem for Romney to contend with.

What are people saying? "I voted for Obama, but I don't see him as a voice to bring people together anymore," said Andy Gould, 49, a lawyer in Bedford who is registered independent. "We need somebody who can unclog the gridlock and bring the parties together. I've been between Huntsman and Romney, and now that he's coming up in the polls I'm probably for Huntsman."

MITT ROMNEY:

For Romney not to win New Hampshire is virtually unthinkable. The former governor of a neighboring state who keeps a summer home on New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee, Romney has always been strong in this state, which he narrowly lost to John McCain with 32 percent of the vote in 2008. But Romney, who eked out a win in Iowa last week, has not exactly ridden into New Hampshire on waves of glory. Instead, he faces crowds of not-exactly-rapturous supporters, increasingly harsh criticism from his increasingly desperate rivals, and his own persistent tendency to seem utterly unacquainted with the struggles of average Americans. Romney has been on defense for days: against Newt Gingrich's piercing charge that his political outsider mantle was "pious baloney"; against a Gingrich-supporting super PAC's depiction of him as a corporate raider; and his ill-worded statement about liking to be able to "fire people," when what he meant was "shop for services such as health care in a competitive marketplace."

Huntsman strategist John Weaver cracked: "I haven't seen a front-runner since Ed Muskie have a worse 72 hours." That's probably overstating it, but the sense that Romney is losing ground is palpable in both late polls that show a slide and the vibe on the ground.

How well does he need to do? His rivals have tried to set Romney's expectations as high as 40 percent. If he wins but comes in under 30, or less than 10 points ahead of the next guy, Romney is in trouble.

What are people saying? "Previously, I had my mind made up for Mitt on electability, so I didn't pay attention," said Ashlyn Lembree, 41, of Nashua, who was leaning Huntsman or Gingrich but hadn't made up her mind Monday. "Now I'm having cold feet and have to cram. Huntsman has a depth of knowledge, and his international perspective would serve us well."

RON PAUL:

Like Romney, Paul's position here has been solid for a while, seemingly locked in second place with between 15 and 20 percent of the vote. His story in New Hampshire, where he has a natural appeal to the "Live Free or Die" state's libertarian streak, is similar to what propelled him in Iowa: throngs of young, passionate followers come to his events and devote their lives to his campaign, while a well-funded, professional campaign apparatus airs a huge volume of well-produced television ads and works to identify and turn out supporters. But in Iowa, Paul faded to third place at the end, a disappointing showing. If that happens again, Paul, always an extreme long shot to win the nomination, will begin to lose his hard-won relevance.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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