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Jon Huntsman hangs a lot of hope on doing well in New Hampshire

PETERBOROUGH, N.H. — Some candidates walk into a room and their presence fills it like a floodlight.

Jon Huntsman walks into a room and, well, he's in the room. More like an energy-saving lightbulb.

No bombast, no soaring rhetoric, no fire. The former Utah governor and ambassador to China exudes competence and substance, but he speaks conversationally, almost like a man slightly embarrassed to be there.

"I just want your vote. I'm not going to pander," he told several dozen seniors at the Peterborough Rotary Club this week, as much of the political world was consumed with the barbs flying between front-runners Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney.

"I'm not going to contort myself into a pretzel. I'm not going to sign those silly pledges that all the other candidates have signed. I'm not going to show up to a Donald Trump debate. There are just some things I will not do."

Dead man walking? Not necessarily.

In the volatile GOP presidential primary that has seen Michele Bachmann rise and fall, Rick Perry soar and implode, Herman Cain rocket to the top and fizzle, and now Newt Gingrich at the top, maybe it's not so crazy to think Huntsman will get the next shot of momentum.

"I'm very impressed. He's a breath of fresh air," retiree Frederic Hartman said after listening to Huntsman talk about the need for dramatic spending cuts, for cutting back military entanglements around the world and for term limits and ethics reforms for Congress. "He's just more rational than the other candidates who are just beating each other up."

Huntsman, 51, barely registers in polls of key early-voting states, including Florida, Iowa and South Carolina. But several commentators, including George Will, former Florida U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough and RedState blogger Erick Erickson, with serious reservations about the electability and conservatism of Gingrich and Romney have suggested Huntsman deserves a second look.

It's a long shot, and Huntsman is staking everything on New Hampshire, which has a tradition of embracing underdogs and upending political narratives.

The average of recent New Hampshire polls compiled by RealClearPolitics shows Huntsman in a distant fourth place, with 10 percent support, behind Romney with 34 percent, Gingrich with 24 and Ron Paul with 18 percent. New Hampshire voters tend to make up their minds at the very end, but a lot has to go right for Huntsman to have a shot and a lot of it is out of his control.

Through September, he had less than $330,000 in his campaign account and more than $3 million in campaign debt. Helping fuel the campaign's mild uptick in the New Hampshire polls has been TV advertising by an independently operating political group, Our Destiny PAC, believed to be heavily funded by his father, billionaire industrialist and philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr.

Legally the campaign can't communicate or devise strategy with the pro-Huntsman group, but campaign officials make perfectly clear they need its resources.

"We need air cover, but we can't coordinate in that. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn't, it doesn't,'' said senior adviser John Weaver.

The Huntsman path involves a muddled result at the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses and a poor showing by Romney, with whom he is competing for many of the same votes. Then a strong showing in New Hampshire on Jan. 10 would generate the momentum to drive Huntsman through South Carolina on Jan. 21 and Florida on Jan. 31.

First, though, Huntsman has to connect with voters.

It's no sure thing.

"I went to see him a while ago. He's boring,'' said David Sherman, a New Boston resident, leaning toward Romney. "Huntsman seems like a nice guy, but all he does is talk in platitudes. He doesn't generate excitement."

In Peterborough, heads nodded as Huntsman talked about an over-extended military and how there can be no more sacred cows when cutting expenses. But as he waxed on about his experience with natural gas-powered cars, several men in the audience appeared more interested in admiring the candidate's striking wife and daughters than listening to his remarks.

"Boring," Dublin retiree Matt Wagner declared as Huntsman headed out. "Just saying, 'I've got the leadership skills nobody else does' is platitudinous pap."

Huntsman's campaign struggled for traction from the beginning, when he kicked it off with little groundwork almost immediately after resigning as ambassador. His service in the Obama administration made him deeply suspect to many Republicans, though he has strong credentials as a fiscal conservative. The Wall Street Journal has called his tax reform plan the best of any candidate, and as Utah's governor he slashed and flattened taxes and rejected mandating health insurance.

Two months ago, the struggling Huntsman campaign moved its headquarters from Florida, where it showed little pulse, to New Hampshire. He has campaigned in the state more than any other major candidate, and on Monday announced a leadership team including 140 New Hampshire residents from 90 towns.

So far, Huntsman has little to show for it.

"People coalesce around candidates about a week or 10 days out. All we can do at this point is plant the seeds. We've done more public events (in New Hampshire) than anybody," Huntsman said. "Some people skipped over us early on. They didn't give us any consideration because I crossed a partisan line to serve my country as U.S. ambassador to China. … Now they're coming around and they're saying, 'We missed something' and we're getting a first look, I would say, and a second look by some."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@sptimes.com.

Jon Huntsman hangs a lot of hope on doing well in New Hampshire 12/13/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 13, 2011 11:26pm]
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