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Huntsman Puts It All On NH

Most presidential hopefuls see a strong showing in the N.H. primary as important. For republican Jon Huntsman, it is essential. The former Utah Governor has staked his whole campaign on the first in the nation primary. NHPR’s Josh Rogers reports.

 Jon Huntsman travelled to NY city this past weekend to poke fun at his New Hampshire-centric approach on Saturday Night Live.

“I love all of America: From Dallas Texas, to Manchester, New Hampshire; from the majestic Rocky Mountains to New Hampshire’s scenic Lake Winnipesaukee; from the innovation of Silicon Valley to the affordable outlet malls in North Conway, New Hampshire.

 “I can’t help but notice you keep mentioning places from New Hampshire.”

  But Huntsman didn’t sound like he was joking during an earlier campaign stop, his 100th in the state.

“I don’t care what the rest of the country thinks or feels -- that’s not important. I do care what the people of New Hampshire feel, because this is important.”

 A campaign where NH is all-important wasn’t always the plan. Huntsman -- who served as the Obama administration’s ambassador to China -- originally based his campaign in Florida. Organizing in South Carolina was another early priority. But lack of traction in the polls, spotty fundraising and staff shake-ups forced Huntsman to take a different approach: Move his entire campaign to NH, and go for broke in a state with a reputation for giving underdogs a shot.

“How are you guys? Huntsman’s the name.’

“Good to see you”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Huntsman’s the name.”

Huntsman’s now been at it for months and his poll numbers here remain in the single digits. On a recent day, he toured two factories near the Vermont border.  At Premier Precision metal forgery, he promised to keep his pitch brief.

“We’ve got to make stuff. We’ve got to manufacture more. And I believe we’ve got an opening.”

The response from the 20 or so employees was polite. Yet if machinist Scott Sayre is anything to go by Huntsman’s got plenty of work left to do.

“Last I heard he was kind of a newer addition to the presidential running. So this is actually the first I heard or seen of him. “

Voters lack of familiarity with Huntsman may be ending end, though, thanks to a new TV-ad.

“No one has shown up who we can trust as a conservative, who actually has a chance to win, and not some phony who tells me one thing and you another.”

he ad is being paid by the pro-Huntsman Superpac Our Destiny. The Superpac spent more than a half-million dollars on the ad buy, more than any candidate or group has spent locally.  

“How come we haven’t heard of this guy?”

ut name recognition is just part of Huntsman’s challenge in NH. There’s also the fact that so far he’s not attracted much support from core republicans voters.  A University of New Hampshire poll released last month showed him as more popular among independents that among voters in his own party. And if talk to Huntsman supporters, and you find plenty of people like Jim MacDonald, who led Huntsman through the metal shop.

“I probably shouldn’t say this but I typically have voted democrat in the past. I am not happy the way things are going in the Democratic party and I really believe in him.”

University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala says for Huntsman to pull off what he’s repeatedly promised, a win in New Hampshire, he’ll need more support from GOP regulars. And Scala says many of them have the former Utah governor pigeon-holed.

“If you want a milder, more bipartisan version of Mitt Romney, well there’s Jon Huntsman. But the dilemma is that not a lot of republicans right now, even NH republicans, want that.”

 Huntsman, who reserves his rare campaign attack lines for Mitt Romney, chafes at this. But Huntsman also seems to recognize success may hinge on getting republicans who’ve already dismissed him to reassess.

“I think people are genuinely willing to give us what I think is a first look, because they didn’t during the first go around: You worked overseas during a democratic administration, even though I worked for Reagan and Bush and Bush and they say, “Ah, we’ll consider others before him.” But I think now it’s getting down to a lot of conservatives who are saying did we miss something?”

 In the meantime, Huntsman says he plans to make sure N.H. primary voters don’t miss him. It’s his only hope.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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