Has Huntsman's Moment Arrived Just in Time?

By Scott Conroy - January 9, 2012

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KEENE, N.H. -- Before posing a question on immigration to the candidate, a young voter at a packed town-hall meeting here noted that he had had a conversation with Jon Huntsman during one of the GOP hopeful's earlier visits to this small college town in the southwest corner of the state.

"Good to see you again," Huntsman replied without skipping a beat.

The former Utah governor has spoken at over 160 events in New Hampshire since he entered the race in June, but it was only on Sunday -- less than 48 hours before the polls open in the nation's first primary -- that he finally seemed to find his voice.

Though he stands on the opposite side of the Republican Party’s ideological spectrum from Rick Santorum, Huntsman is trying to follow the same playbook that the former Pennsylvania senator executed to perfection in Iowa: campaign more aggressively than anyone else in this state and then peak at just the right moment.

“We’re doing this the old-fashioned way,” Huntsman told the crowd here. “We’re working for it.”

As with Santorum in Iowa, Huntsman’s views and temperament -- on paper, at least -- are a good fit for the Republican electorate in the Granite State, a place where he has banked his presidential hopes.

Among the crowd of more than 300 who came to see Huntsman at the Keene State Student Center on Sunday night was Rich Mellin, who owns a small business in nearby Peterborough.

One of the heavily courted unaffiliated voters who intends to cast his ballot in the Republican primary on Tuesday, Mellin planted a Huntsman sign in his front yard several weeks ago.

“I think the Republican Party in general has become too dogmatic, and these candidates feel like they have to check all the boxes,” Mellin said. “He’s willing to be nuanced in his positions and think a little bit. But mostly, I think he has a good temperament.”

Huntsman’s campaign is counting on old-style Yankee Republican and independent voters like Mellin to come out in larger than expected numbers, resulting in a second- or strong third-place finish that will enable him to move on to South Carolina with some momentum.

Thirty-eight percent of voters who cast ballots in the 2008 New Hampshire Republican primary were independents, and two senior Huntsman aides said they are counting on a higher-than-expected turnout of about 45 percent of unaffiliated voters on Tuesday.

Team Huntsman points to the lack of a contested Democratic primary as reason to believe that this could happen.

The candidate’s brain trust is counting on doing particularly well with independents in an area of the state that is shaped like an “L,” which goes north to south along the Connecticut River Valley and then cuts across the far southern part of the state to the eastern seacoast.

A sudden burst of energy surrounding Huntsman’s long-shot campaign first became apparent earlier in the day at an event in Hampstead, where an overflow crowd peered through the windows to try to get a glimpse of him.

It was there that Huntsman leaped atop a serving counter inside Bean Towne Coffee House and beamed with an expression of buoyancy that he has rarely shown over his long, hard slog in New Hampshire.

“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 Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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