LAKE WINNIPESAUKEE, N.H. — As Jon Huntsman finished his presidential pitch to hundreds of Republicans cruising this picturesque lake aboard a 230-foot yacht, he promised they hadn't seen the last of him.
"We're going to get around the state, and we're going to get to know all of you. We're going to shake hands, we're going to have discussions and we're going to talk about the issues," the former Utah governor and recent ambassador to China said, while his wife, Mary Kaye, and 18-year-old son, Will — one of the couple's seven children — stood nearby. "Because New Hampshire matters."
Huntsman was referring to the state's role as host of the nation's first primary. But he might well have been noting its importance to his presidential campaign. For Huntsman, who will formally announce his bid Tuesday, a victory in New Hampshire is vital to any scenario for success.
He has already said he isn't competing in Iowa, the site of the first caucuses, where his opposition to corn subsidies, moderate immigration stances and Mormon faith make for an uphill struggle.
So that leaves New Hampshire as a potential early breakthrough, and that is why Huntsman has been all over the Granite State. On the yacht, he advised one voter to teach her children Chinese, demonstrating both his and his son's fluency. In Berlin, he discussed the GOP budget plan with William "Bear" Britton, a biker wearing a leather vest reading "Jesus Is My Boss."
He popped into a nearby Chinese restaurant to exchange greetings in Mandarin with surprised workers and, in Gorham, played bocce ball and sang with a barbershop quartet (he's a baritone).
But everywhere there is his greatest obstacle: former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the leading GOP candidate in the polls, who also has staked his campaign on New Hampshire, building an extensive network since his 2008 loss here. His vacation home rests on the shores of the very lake on which Huntsman traveled.
As the candidates court voters, Romney goes for the jugular, portraying President Barack Obama as unfeeling about the nation's economic crisis. Huntsman has cast himself as a happier warrior, turned off by the bitter talk and rank partisanship in modern-day politics and unwilling, for now at least, to sharply disparage Obama or his GOP competitors.
"Let's face it — we need a fundamental shift of gears in this country," he said in an interview. "The blame game only takes you so far. It's what ideas, what solutions, what vision do you have for the future that I think is going to be most powerful. They (voters) want to know how you're trying to get from point A to point B. To me, that's the essence of a winning campaign."
Huntsman appears at ease on the campaign trail. In North Conway, he wore a flannel shirt, denim jacket and brown cords, more casually dressed than many voters who had come to see him.
But it was painfully obvious that most have no clue who he is. As he walked through a cultural fair in the state's far north with a small number of staff in tow, passers-by repeatedly asked, "Who is that?"
At a breakfast in North Conway and a reception in Dixville Notch, Huntsman acknowledged the improbability of his run.
"When you're thinking of running for president of the United States — I can't even say that without kind of getting chills. I never thought we would be doing this," he said.
Huntsman spoke passionately about the need to restore the nation's economy and primacy, and tied his goals with his resume, from leading Utah to serving in China under the Obama administration.
Some have questioned whether GOP voters would accept a candidate who served under Obama. No voter brought up the issue, which Huntsman has sought to frame as selfless service to his country. But many did say they were undecided about Huntsman's potential even after hearing him speak.
"I don't know, there were lots of generalities," said Linda Teagan, a retired lawyer from North Conway. "They all say where we need to end up — the question is how they get there. He's new. Hopefully next time he'll say I'm going to get rid of A, B, C and D."
Comparisons between Huntsman and Romney are inevitable — both are wealthy former governors who descend from prominent Mormon families. Rumors of rivalries have swirled for years.
Huntsman, 51, said there were no ill feelings.
"It's a lot of hyperbole; it sounds good, everybody loves drama," he said, speaking to reporters on a pier down the street from Romney's Wolfeboro home. "But there's not a whole lot of truth to it."
But Huntsman is not above a tweak at Romney's expense. Asked in a Hooksett gun shop what type of animals he hunts, he replied, slyly, "large varmints." Four years ago, Romney was mocked when he responded to a similar question with the words "small varmints."
Political analysts say Huntsman can avoid slashing Romney directly because other potential candidates will tear into him about his Massachusetts health care plan, which inspired the Obama federal plan detested by rank-and file Republicans.
"Any number of Republican conservatives can try to make their bones in this race by going after 'Romneycare,'" said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
Still, Scala said Huntsman must get his name in front of voters, a task made more difficult by his absence from Monday's New Hampshire debate. (He will try to do just that on Tuesday, when he travels here after making his formal presidential announcement at Liberty State Park in New Jersey, favored for its Statue of Liberty backdrop).
Until recently, Huntsman has had something of a free ride, receiving flattering media coverage of his forays into the Granite State. But since his intentions have become clear, he has faced increased scrutiny.
Recent news reports have detailed how the Huntsman Corp., the company his father founded and where Huntsman once worked as a top executive, saw an increase in revenue in China when Huntsman was ambassador there and employs more people in Asia than in North America.
Such issues could concern voters who are worried about China's growing economy and the offshoring of jobs.
With the obstacles Huntsman faces, some argue that he is merely building his brand for a 2016 run. The former governor punted when asked this question, but observers said this year represents Huntsman's best and last chance, in part because of a deep bench of future GOP leaders.
"He's either got to be all in and make a serious play in 2012 or there's really no point," Scala said. "Huntsman will be very old news by (2016) unless he makes a strong, strong bid."
(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.
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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
Paul wins straw poll; Huntsman runner up
New Orleans (AP) — Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has won the presidential straw poll at the Republican Leadership Conference.
The perennial libertarian candidate won 612 votes from the gathering that brings presidential candidates, party elders, grassroots activists and donors. Coming in second place was former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who served three Republican administrations and then worked as President Barack Obama's ambassador to China.
Huntsman got 382 votes, but did not address the conference.