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."
But Huntsman has failed to make deep inroads. He didn't make a strong impression during the New Hampshire debate last week. His quotes made it into the Manchester Union Leader, the state's largest newspaper, but only for his pizza dig at the 9-9-9 economic plan championed by Herman Cain, who in recent weeks has surged ahead of Huntsman in the state, as elsewhere.
"You make a little joke like that and you find out the next morning the headline coming out of the debate is not the substance of economics or foreign policy; it's the pizza comment," Huntsman wryly told an audience at Keene State College, one of the town hall meetings he's held across the state, meeting with small groups and practicing the retail politics that voters here prefer.
His low profile discourages supporters, who say he's a solid, serious candidate who could find traction if he were better known.
"The press is only interested in the internal squabbles, Romney and Perry, who's up and who's down," said state Rep. Julie Brown. The Rochester Republican endorsed social conservative Mike Huckabee in 2008, but she cites the economy as her chief concern now, and is backing Huntsman.
"Look at his record in Utah," she said. "He knows what he's doing."
Romney, she said, "governs by putting his finger in the air. I'm not sure we can trust him."
Many GOP voters who've yet to settle on a presidential candidate say they want someone more conservative than Romney, and Huntsman, who served as Obama's ambassador to China, doesn't fit the bill.
"Huntsman's just too close to the Obama administration, "said state Rep. John Reagan, R-Deerfield. "He didn't just get that job because he speaks Chinese; I've got to believe there are deeper ties there."
Huntsman acknowledges at most campaign stops that his ambassadorship to China creates a "roadblock" and that there are Republicans who say, " 'No way, no how, I'm ever going to vote for that guy.'
"I believe that when your country asks you to step up and serve, you serve," he said.
Huntsman hasn't yet put up any campaign ads in New Hampshire, and he declined last week to talk about financing or campaign strategy with reporters. Huntsman has already put $2 million of his own money into the campaign.
Supporters have set up a so-called super PAC to promote his campaign, but it has yet to get engaged in the race. Huntsman wouldn't say whether his wealthy father — who invented the clamshell packaging that McDonald's uses — would contribute.Comment on this story
"I don't have say over super PACs," he said of the fundraising groups that can spend unrestricted dollars but are required by law to be independent of campaigns.
He said he didn't know whether his own campaign would put up ads anytime soon, but that he'd keep campaigning, along with his wife and children.
"Our strategy is to win votes. Votes win elections in New Hampshire, and that's where I'm focused," he said. "You can differentiate yourself — that will have to be done — but voters want to know what's in your heart, what you think about where this country should go. ... Wherever we go, that's what we're hearing from people."
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