NASHUA, N.H. — Dismissing statistics showing modest hiring gains and a dip in unemployment, Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman said Friday that President Barack Obama hasn't "infused enough confidence" in the nation's economy.
New Labor Department figures show employers added 117,000 jobs last month, more than the totals for two previous months. The unemployment rate dipped to 9.1 percent, though other recent economic data show the economy remains weak.
Huntsman, a former Utah governor wrapping up a five-day trip to New Hampshire, said the unemployment rate remains unacceptably high.
"We deserve a whole lot better in this country. The president's had two and a half years to get it right. He has not infused enough confidence in this economy," he said, adding that the economy will remain stalled without tax and regulatory overhauls.
"These are things that must be addressed to build confidence in this economy longer term. Otherwise we're going to remain stalled," he said.
Huntsman spoke to reporters after meeting with about two dozen business owners in downtown Nashua, three months after rival Mitt Romney met with some of the same people in the same building.
Like the former Massachusetts governor, Huntsman spent most of his time listening to the business owners describe their struggles and emphasizing his argument that small businesses are being choked by burdensome regulations. He pointed to Thursday's stock market losses and Friday's fluctuations as further proof of Obama's lack of leadership.
"You saw the market yesterday, you look at what's taking place today. There's no confidence in where this country is going. There's no ability to see around the corner to predict where the future is going to be," he said. "So it's therefore no surprise that businesses aren't letting loose with the capital expenditures. It's no surprise that people aren't hiring, there's no ability to predict where we're going."
Eric Brand, who owns P&L Landscaping in Merrimack, said he has struggled to keep employees because of rising health insurance costs. Huntsman said the federal government could help by allowing companies to shop for policies across state lines, but the real solutions will come at the state level.
"So what are you going to do about the cost escalations going forward?" he asked Brand.
"I don't have an idea, that's what I'm looking to you for," Brand answered.1 comment on this story
Brand, who also attended the meeting with Romney, said later that he liked that Huntsman asked for his opinion, even though he didn't have a ready answer. He said both Romney and Huntsman were good listeners.
"I haven't heard enough about either one of them to form an opinion yet on who I would feel is a better candidate," he said.
Huntsman, who is skipping the leadoff Iowa caucuses, said he is counting on a victory in New Hampshire to propel him to the nomination.
"We're going to win New Hampshire, I just want you to be the first to know," he told the group, repeating a line he has been using all week.