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Has Huntsman's Moment Arrived Just in Time?

By Scott Conroy - January 9, 2012

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“They say this state loves an underdog,” he declared to the packed house that cheered him on. “Ladies and gentlemen, here is your underdog.”

The typically demure former ambassador to China struck an impassioned tone on the heels of his well-received debate performance Sunday morning and recent polls that show him on an upward trajectory here.

Wearing a brown leather bomber jacket with an American flag patch stitched into the sleeve, Huntsman was not even conceding that he would lose to Mitt Romney, who is leading him by more than 30 percent in the latest RCP polling average in New Hampshire.

“There’s not going to be a coronation, folks,” Huntsman said. “Can I feel the surge? Can I feel the energy on the ground? I can feel it.”

After months of punting on the kinds of forceful attacks on Romney’s record that might have helped him move the dial here, Huntsman struck a combative tone against the national front-runner after the former Massachusetts governor criticized him for serving as ambassador under President Obama.

“Let’s just be honest about it: I put my country first. Apparently Mitt Romney doesn’t believe in putting his country first,” Huntsman told RCP, as he was surrounded by a crush of reporters. “He’s got this bumper sticker that says, you know, ‘Proud of America’ or ‘Believe in America.’ How can you believe in America when you’re not willing to serve America? That’s just phony nonsense.”

Since entering the presidential race in June, Huntsman has faced questions about his appointment in the Obama administration at every turn.

Though he has always said his decision to accept the ambassadorship was based on serving the country, he has often offered this defense in an almost rueful tone, admitting that many GOP voters would see it as a significant blot on his resume.

But on Sunday, Huntsman was eager to press the issue, as he sensed an opening handed to him by Romney to turn a negative perception into a positive one.

Meanwhile, the Huntsman campaign quickly produced a 60-second Web ad titled “Country First” -- John McCain’s 2008 campaign slogan -- and solicited donations in order to air it on television.

“I stepped up when my president asked, and I always will -- it’s part of my philosophy,” Huntsman said in Hampstead. “I know that may be hard for Mitt Romney and some people to take, but most of America is with me because in the end, they want this America to be run together. They want us all to find solutions, but they want us to find solutions as Americans first and foremost, not as divided people.”

Embracing the media attention he was suddenly receiving, Huntsman continued to answer reporters’ questions even after he jumped into the driver’s seat and hit the road toward his next event.

“Any Democrats in the way?” he joked, as aides shouted for bystanders and cameramen to make way for the hyped-up candidate behind the wheel.

Unlike in the Iowa caucuses, New Hampshire Democrats cannot change their party registration on Election Day to vote in the state’s semi-open primary.

Independents, on the other hand -- Huntsman would have been more than happy to have one of them riding shotgun. 

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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