For someone often seen as the forgotten man of the Republican presidential race, former Utah governor Jon Huntsman is not shy about addressing his lowly status.

Walking through the hum and whine of a metal-working factory in Keene, New Hampshire, Huntsman extended his hand to worker Mike Breault and was bluntly honest about his chances.

"I need all the help I can get. We are the underdog. No doubt about it," he told Breault.

It was a line he repeated a few minutes later as he addressed a group of about 20 employees of the Tidland plant, which makes various steel products. In fact, Huntsman's admission that he is deeply unfavoured in the race is now part of his New Hampshire stump speech, declared regularly at town hall meetings across the tiny state.

But hope springs eternal and, in New Hampshire at least, there might even be good reason for it. For Huntsman has spent months on end in New Hampshire, notching up more time in the state than any other candidate. He has been practising the same sort of intense, street-level politics that suddenly swept Rick Santorum into a virtual tie in Iowa. "I am the guy who is practically living in New Hampshire," Huntsman told the Tidland workers. "We are doing it the way it is supposed to be done. We are winning votes handshake by handshake," he added.

Having abandoned Iowa long ago, Huntsman has moved into third place in New Hampshire in some recent polls, though far behind the frontrunner, Mitt Romney, who regularly scores more than 40%. But Huntsman's strategists are banking on the fact that the evangelicals and social conservatives who play such a large role in Iowa, and ending up flocking to Santorum, figure much less in New Hampshire politics. The state is far more concerned with fiscal conservatism, and Huntsman is banking that the state might give him – last of all the Republican candidates – a final shot at becoming a rallying point for anti-Romney Republicans.

Experts believe it might be possible. "New Hampshire is not in a post-retail politics era. People appreciate what Huntsman has done here," said Professor John Carroll, a political expert at Boston University.

It has been a long road, though. Operating, as Santorum did, under the media radar, Huntsman has struggled to make much impact beyond appearances in the many televised debates. His life for months has consisted of long, lonely arcs through New Hampshire's small towns, holding town hall meeting after town hall meeting. In Dover he created rare headlines in October when he was playfully bitten by a goat called Izak.

But Huntsman has carved out a niche in New Hampshire. As the Republican party has cycled through a long list of potential anti-Romney candidates, Huntsman has positioned himself as a moderately conservative, family-man alternative to the former Massachusetts governor, who many Republicans still seem reluctant to back.

He certainly does not have the baggage that some recent anti-Romney frontrunners have carried. Unlike Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich – and just like Romney – Huntsman has a good-looking family straight out of a Hollywood movie, with a wife and seven children. Like Romney he is a devout Mormon, which might unnerve some evangelicals but certainly ticks the religious box for most New Hampshire voters. He also touts his record as a governor in creating jobs.

He boasts that his time as America's ambassador to China shows more experience in vital foreign policy than any other candidate. He even has a touch of pop culture in the shape of three of his daughters, the Jon 2012 girls, who produce spoof videos of rivals and have amassed more than 20,000 Twitter followers.

Huntsman's approach is garnering some support. "For me it is a choice between him and Ron Paul," said Breault, after listening to Huntsman's pitch on the factory floor in Keene. Meanwhile, experts are divided on Huntsman's potential impact. With Santorum's appeal less impressive in New Hampshire, some believe the rotating anti-Romney sentiment might finally settle on Huntsman. After all, he is virtually the only candidate that it is has ignored so far. But others see Huntsman as helping Romney by further maintaining a divided opposition.

That particular viewpoint suggests that as Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, Santorum and Rick Perry take up a little piece of the anti-Romney pie, it makes Romney's path to the nomination all the easier.

Under that analysis, Huntsman's decision to mount a determined stand in New Hampshire simply furthers Romney's cause. "Huntsman is in a kind of cul-de-sac. His campaign depended upon Romney faltering, and that did not happen," said Professor Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.

That might not leave too far for Huntsman to go. Certainly rival campaigns have sought to dismiss him as an irrelevance, especially after failing to register almost any support in Iowa. On caucus day the Ron Paul campaign sent out a snarky Twitter message directed at him. "We found your one Iowa voter, he's in Linn precinct 5 you might want to call him and say thanks," it read before being swiftly deleted.

Yet Huntsman can draw a big and boisterous crowd in New Hampshire. On a frozen, frosty night in the small town of Peterborough in the south of the state, at least 300 people filled the town hall to see Huntsman speak. They packed into every chair, a balcony and even resorted to standing at the back. One supporter, college professor Phil Suter, 58, explained bluntly that Huntsman stood out in a field that moderate Republicans saw as too religious and too right-wing. "I think he is probably not nuts," Suter said. "He has core beliefs and he is pretty level-headed."

Huntsman was introduced to the crowd by Tom Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor and the first head of the Department of Homeland Security. Ridge called Huntsman "the next president of the United States". When Huntsman pointed out his wife, Mary Kaye Huntsman, to the crowd he called her "America's next First Lady". But when he kicked off his stump speech he slipped back into his more familiar and realistic spiel. "I am the underdog in this race," he began.

This time, however, he added: "But you know what? New Hampshire loves an underdog."