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.
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