CONCORD, N.H. — Republican Jon Huntsman's presidential fortunes may have little to do with his party's conservatives.
If there is a path to success for the former Utah governor, it probably rests with independents. They're a critical group in New Hampshire and other early voting states that allow unaffiliated voters to help select the GOP nominee.
The former Utah governor has bet big on New Hampshire and its Jan. 10 primary. He's devoted virtually all his time and energy in recent months, and polling suggests he may be on the rise, thanks largely to tens of thousands of independents likely to vote in that contest. Independents represent about 40 percent of the New Hampshire electorate.
"I'm no longer the margin of error candidate, so we've got to start describing ourselves in different terms," Huntsman told The Associated Press last week after a Suffolk University survey put him in third place with 13 percent among likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters. "Maybe the surging candidate is more appropriate."
While the extent of any momentum is difficult to ascertain from one survey, pollsters note that Huntsman fares better than most of his rivals with independents.
Each state has its own rules, but unaffiliated voters are welcome to participate in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary and the subsequent South Carolina contest.
Huntsman has begun to use his independent appeal as a selling point, suggesting that electability, and not necessarily ideological purity, should be the prime consideration for GOP primary voters.
"I know that full well that in order to beat Barack Obama, we've got to make sure that the arithmetic is in our favor," Huntsman said. "And that means that we're going to need some independents who support us as well."
Despite high expectations earlier in the year, Huntsman has struggled to attract the more conservative voters who typically dominate Republican primaries. A former ambassador to China in the Obama administration, Huntsman has taken more moderate positions on global warming, the war in Afghanistan, and gay rights, among other issues that don't play well with many conservatives.
The Suffolk survey found that Huntsman's standing among likely New Hampshire GOP primary voters, at 13 percent, is at an all-time high, however. He scored second best among independents, trailing only former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Texas Rep. Ron Paul also has performed well among independents, particularly those with libertarian leanings.
"If independents participate in a big way next January, Huntsman will benefit," said David Paleologos, director of Suffolk University's Political Research Center. "While other candidates have focused on the more traditional Republican voters, Huntsman has traction among independents, who could dominate the Republican primary if mobilized."
Some New Hampshire political observers suggest that Paleologos' analysis is overly optimistic.
"Huntsman continues to mix his messages badly so that voters don't know what to believe," said Michael Dennehy, an unaligned New Hampshire-based Republican operative who led Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign four years ago.
"Huntsman is now on a crusade saying that he is the most conservative candidate on abortion and gun rights, when just last month he was describing himself as a moderate and reaching out to independents. Voters won't support someone who has an inconsistent message," Dennehy said.
It's unclear whether independents, who can vote in the Republican or Democratic primaries, will play a significant factor, according to University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith.
"They typically don't have that big of an impact," he said. "You can't win the primary by winning the independents; you've got to win among your registered voters."
Smith said that independents traditionally make their picks late in the game and tend to support the candidates whom they know best.
That could spell trouble for Huntsman, who is hardly well-known in New Hampshire, despite having hosted 120 public events in the state since joining the race. He often jokes that he's begun to develop a local accent.
But Huntsman has struggled to raise the money needed to reach a broader audience on television.
He got some help in recent weeks, however, after an independent super PAC designed to help Huntsman spent $1.2 million on two weeks of television commercials across New Hampshire.
"I think it's a combination of whatever might be on the air — I don't have any control over that — and a whole lot of what's happening on the ground," Huntsman said, explaining his modest rise. "I don't think anyone is working nearly as hard as we are."
New Hampshire voters are beginning to notice.
"I'm not really leaning toward anyone though Huntsman does interest me," said 69-year-old Sonia Ascher, of Hollis, at recent town hall-style meeting Huntsman hosted at Rivier College. "I usually do not make my decision until very close to Election Day."
Huntsman has decided not to complete in the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3, and will focus on selling his message in New Hampshire.
"His greatest opportunity might just come to him by default," said unaffiliated New Hampshire Republican operative Rich Killion, adding that a "multi-candidate food fight seems to be evolving in Iowa."
comment on this story
Huntsman "could potentially gain ground very late by simply just being available and existing as an alternative to the dynamic that could exist" between Romney and Newt Gingrich.
"I believe that when you come out of New Hampshire with a head of steam as we will do, then it becomes more of a question of electability for Republican voters and independent voters," he said. "And by doing what we're going to do in New Hampshire we will prove that point, that we are the most electable candidate to go up against Barack Obama and ultimately beat him."