Huntsman banks on New Hampshire

By Lesley Clark

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Thursday, Oct. 13 2011 8:00 p.m. MDT

MARLOW, N.H. — Jon Huntsman was wowing the crowd in this tiny town, the first Republican to campaign here since Dwight Eisenhower.

The former Utah governor decried the division in the country as "unhealthy" and "un-American." He vowed to get the nation's "economic house in order" and out of its "funk."

The audience was receptive: "You've just delivered a phenomenal college course," gushed Kathy Depasquale, 70, a local antiques dealer.

Huntsman is staking his presidential bid on New Hampshire, hoping that his record as a fiscal conservative who believes in climate change and supports the DREAM Act for illegal-immigrant students and civil unions for gay couples will strike a chord with voters here who value independence and straight talk.

He's held more than 75 events across the state, donning L.L. Bean fleece for the autumn chill and telling voters he's the candidate best poised to bring together Republicans, Democrats and independents to win the presidency.

But that may be part of the reason he hasn't found much traction in a contest that's still in flux.

Despite a resume that includes two terms as governor and U.S. ambassadorships to Singapore and China, Huntsman has struggled to break into double digits in state polls.

At several of 11 events he held during a campaign swing last week, his admirers included Democrats and independents, who can vote in the state's open primary but are unlikely to make much of a dent in a final outcome, which generally is determined by the Republican faithful.

Take Depasquale. A registered independent, she said she was disappointed with President Barack Obama, liked what Huntsman said and might cast a vote in the Republican primary to "see someone like this attract attention away from what I think is a bad bunch of people. This is a moderate, intelligent voice."

A victory in New Hampshire would shake up the race and give Huntsman major momentum: See John McCain, whose beleaguered 2008 campaign regained force in New Hampshire, which he won, and he went on to snag the GOP presidential nomination.

But Huntsman's path requires chipping away at former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a New Hampshire neighbor with a vacation home there, and Romney has retained a commanding lead in the state in recent polls.

Still, some 68 percent of likely GOP voters said in a recent Granite State WMUR poll that they haven't yet settled on a candidate. But it's mostly the voters on the conservative side who are restless.

"And Huntsman's kind of the Democratic ideal of what a Republican should look like," said Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. "The argument is that he'd do well in a general (election), but that doesn't play that well in a Republican primary, even in New Hampshire."

A recent UNH poll found Huntsman with a positive favorability rating among likely Republican primary voters who consider themselves liberal to moderate, but not among the conservatives who represent a majority of GOP voters, Scala said.

Huntsman could benefit from a sustained air-ad war targeting Romney, something Texas Gov. Rick Perry has the campaign war chest to do. But with Perry's poll numbers sliding, it's uncertain what effect even that would have.

Huntsman says he's finds voters willing to listen everywhere he goes.

"If we have the right candidate on the right side with the right message that brings people together around some common, doable, practical themes, you're going to have a whole lot of those folks who are unaffiliated, the Reagan Democrats, and you remake a party," he told the crowd at the rustic Odd Fellows Hall in Marlow. "I think we're going to have such a moment in 2012."

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