KEENE, N.H. -- Jon Huntsman said Sunday night that Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney puts "politics first," as his campaign moved to highlight Romney's denigration of Huntsman's service as U.S. Ambassador to China two days before the New Hampshire primary.
"I'm somebody who believes in putting my country first. Mr. Romney apparently believes in politics first," Huntsman, the former Utah governor, said at a town hall event here on the campus of Keene State College.
"I say that's the problem with this country right now. You hear what I'm saying?" Huntsman said. "That's the reason we're not pulling together as people, because everything's politicized, as opposed to remembering that we are Americans, first and foremost. And that's the only way we're going to be able to solve our problems longer-term."
Huntsman said his exchanges with Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, at debates on Saturday night and Sunday morning revealed "the biggest difference between me and Mr. Romney."
Romney hit Huntsman on Saturday night in Manchester for "implementing the policies of this administration in China" while "the rest of us on the stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward."
Huntsman raised the issue Sunday morning in Concord, saying Romney had knocked him for "putting my country first." In response, Romney doubled down.
"The person who should represent our party running against President Obama is not someone who called him a remarkable leader and went to be his ambassador in China," Romney said.
"This nation is divided because of attitudes like that," Huntsman responded.
The bickering between the Huntsman and Romney campaigns continued to escalate late Sunday afternoon, after New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, in New Hampshire stumping for Romney, questioned Huntsman's integrity for plotting a White House run against Obama while serving in his administration.
"I tell you, I wonder about Jon Huntsman's integrity," Christie said, according to a transcript of the event. "What was he doing in China preparing to run for president? Because this doesn’t happen overnight. You don’t come back to the US and all of the sudden wake up one morning and go, 'Look at all these people who are now putting together my presidential campaign' without the permission of the person that’s doing that. So I think there are a lot of questions to ask about Jon Huntsman out of this whole thing."
"My issue is not that he worked for the president," Christie continued. "I understand why Mitt thinks it is an issue. My bigger issue is that he was obviously being disloyal to the president while he was working for him. That’s a bigger question. Voters who want to vote for him should ask him that."
After Christie had delivered his remarks, the Huntsman campaign deployed a surrogate of its own for a withering response.
"Shame on Governor Christie for repeating Mitt Romney's divisive line of attack on Governor Huntsman's decision to put country before politics," said former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. "The responsibility to represent our country in the most important diplomatic position of the 21st century should be applauded -- not politicized.
"This type of divisive attack is exactly what the country is sick and tired of. We deserve better."
At the town hall event here, Huntsman's wife, Mary Kay, defended her husband.
"He also worked for Reagan, he worked for Bush, he worked for Bush, and he's always felt that serving his country was most important, more important than politics," she said.
"If he had turned down the opportunity to serve, all I can say is, what kind of example would that have been for those boys?" she said, referencing the Huntsmans' two sons who are currently serving in the U.S. Navy.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) also defended Huntsman at an event in Manchester on Sunday afternoon, calling Romney's remarks "narrow-minded."
"There are plenty of things we can argue about without impugning the motives of someone who has served this country at considerable personal inconvenience," Gingrich said.
Huntsman has shown some positive movement in the polls over the past day or two, moving into third place in Suffolk University's daily tracking poll with 11 percent. That's still well behind Romney's 35 percent, but Romney has dropped 8 points in less than a week. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has also picked up ground, moving up to 20 percent.
It's not clear whether Huntsman will have a path forward without an explosive showing in New Hampshire, where his more moderate tone suits the state's electorate much better than the deep red conservative state of South Carolina where voters will head to the polls on Jan. 21.
CORRECTION: In an earlier version of this article, Keene State College was mislabeled as Keene State University. We regret the error.