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Jon Huntsman looks to pull a 'Rick Santorum' in New Hampshire

Jon Huntsman has made numerous appearances in New Hampshire, but local political observers are skeptical about whether he can connect with a sufficient range of voters in Tuesday's primary.

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Republican presidential candidate and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman addresses a business lunch campaign event in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Thursday.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters

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Jon Huntsman has racked up more than 150 appearances in New Hampshire, ignoring Iowa in hopes that the Granite State will turn him into a contender on the national stage.

“I’m an underdog, and this state loves underdogs,” the former Utah governor and ambassador to China said Wednesday at the Manchester headquarters of Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH), a utility company.

The question is, will voters love this particular dog enough to throw him a bone during Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary?

Mr. Huntsman’s work in the state can pay off for him the way Rick Santorum’s ground campaign in Iowa gave him a surprising near-tie finish with Mitt Romney, says campaign spokesman Tim Miller.

“The [Huntsman] headquarters has had an influx of people that want to help get his message out ... and we hope that ... as the notoriously late-deciding, flinty New Hampshire voters tune in, things are going to break our way,” Mr. Miller says.

But local political observers are skeptical about whether the former Utah governor can connect with a sufficient range of voters to pull him into the second- or third-place finish that he needs for his campaign to live on.

“He says that all his chips are here in New Hampshire ... but he really doesn’t run a particularly active campaign” in terms of volunteers knocking on doors, for instance, says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center in Durham.

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Although Huntsman has campaigned here more than other candidates this cycle, he’s had days with just three or four events, compared with John McCain’s seven or eight events a day back in 2008, Mr. Smith says.

Political analysts also cite a strategic error in how Huntsman has portrayed himself. At first, he reached out to moderates and independents (who can vote in either party’s primary), which made some Republicans wonder if he should be running as a Democrat. More recently, he started portraying himself as the true conservative in the race.

“He’s thoroughly confused voters,” says Michael Dennehy, a veteran New Hampshire political strategist. “If he had stayed on the course he had been on, reaching out to moderates and independents, he could have gotten to 20 percent, but he’s tried to become the conservative alternative, and it’s not going to work.”

In the meantime, Texas Rep. Ron Paul has been polling in second place, with an average of just under 20 percent, thanks largely to those moderate and independent voters. Mr. Romney is at about 40 percent.

Newt Gingrich and Huntsman have been virtually neck and neck for third place, but Mr. Santorum has crept up on them in a new poll from Suffolk University in Boston. Taken on Jan. 3 and 4, it shows Santorum with 8 percent and Gingrich and Huntsman both with 7. The margin of error, however, is about four percentage points.

Santorum is hoping to capitalize on his Iowa momentum among conservative voters in New Hampshire.

It also doesn’t help Huntsman that Senator McCain, the “maverick” New Hampshire winner in 2008, came to the state to endorse Romney on Wednesday.

Still, polling can be fickle, and about a third of the electorate here say they could still change their mind. “With a smaller field and the press now paying close attention, [Huntsman] may get the coverage he hasn’t gotten so far,” and could still beat expectations, says Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover.

Also, two debates are scheduled for this weekend, but that’s a realm where former House Speaker Gingrich has tended to thrive more so than Huntsman.

Likely voters at the PSNH event with Huntsman on Wednesday represented a range of views. Susan Doyon, an independent who plans to vote on Tuesday, said she was leaning toward Huntsman because of his international experience and his ideas on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. As a real estate broker, she says that might hurt her business in the short term, but it makes sense in the long run.

“Mitt Romney ... is very popular here, but I’m not so sure he’s a straight shooter,” Ms. Doyon said. After Huntsman spoke for about 20 minutes and took a few questions, she shook hands with him and confirmed on her way out, “He’s got my vote.”

Randy Dixon, another independent voter, said he’s still keeping Romney and Representative Paul in the mix along with Huntsman. “I’ll keep watching the TV,” he said.

Erik Ellison, a former Democrat-turned-Republican, said he wants to vote for someone “who will be a burr in the side of the other candidates” in the primary. So far, he’s leaning toward Paul because of his antiwar standings and his drug policies, but he adds that Paul is “too extreme to be president.” Mr. Ellison wanted to see Huntsman in person because “he seems like one of the saner candidates.”

Wearing blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a navy sweater, Huntsman seemed relaxed and confident as he portrayed the choice as one between Romney, the “status quo” candidate, and himself – a bold leader who would push for term limits in Congress and “right-size” banks so they couldn’t say they were too big to fail.

But to some observers, Huntsman may be an underdog who ends up leaving the state with his tail between his legs.

“Fundamentally it comes down to: He’s a diplomat, not a politician,” says Fergus Cullen, a columnist and former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. “I just don’t see him aggressively enough distinguishing himself from the other candidates ... [or being willing enough] to take on his own party.”

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