MANCHESTER, N.H. — Just a few months ago, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. promised New Hampshire voters would be rallying around his presidential campaign, his first stop on the way to the White House.
"Keep your eyes on New Hampshire," Huntsman told reporters during a visit to Salt Lake City last October. "We're going to do great … I like our position. More than that, I like the way we're connecting with the people of New Hampshire."
He had reason then to be optimistic about Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, having already made the state the centerpiece of his campaign, skipping last week's Iowa caucus vote and even moving his headquarters here from Florida.
But despite his dedication to the second state to vote in the 2012 race for the GOP presidential nomination, Huntsman appears to be slipping in the polls, after barely breaking into the double-digits.
Mitt Romney, the other candidate in the race with Utah ties, continues to hold a substantial lead hovering around 40 percent going into the primary after eking out an extremely narrow victory in Iowa.
There had been much speculation about whether the former U.S. ambassador to China could pull off a victory in New Hampshire. Huntsman himself said recently if he comes in lower than third place, he'll reevaluate his campaign.
Now, though, the question seems to be how much longer he'll be in the race.
"Honestly, I think his chances are slim and none," said Matthew Wilson, a religion and politics professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"He's clearly chosen to put all his eggs in the New Hampshire basket," Wilson said. "I suspect Huntsman will do no better than fourth. There's a good likelihood he'll end up dropping out."
Wilson said because New Hampshire voters "like to see themselves as kingmakers, as really being decisive in determining the nominee, it seems to me unlikely that New Hampshire is going to go rogue" and offer Huntsman any real hope of going forward.
Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire, agreed New Hampshire may well be Huntsman's first and last test in the race.
"It's hard to see how it's going to be otherwise," Scala said. "The momentum is going in the wrong direction."
Scala said there's likely to be little reason for Huntsman to continue as a candidate after Tuesday's primary. "I don't see the point," he said. "But Rick Perry is staying in. Candidates sometimes convince themselves to stay in."
Perry, the Texas governor, initially appeared ready to drop out after a poor showing in Iowa last week. But he's now said he'll move on to South Carolina. Another contender, Minnesota Rep. Michelle Bachmann, has already left the race.
But former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who almost beat Romney in Iowa, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who came in third there, are both coming on strong in New Hampshire. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich still has appeal to voters there, too.
Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa and a Republican activist, also said that Huntsman's chances of doing well enough in New Hampshire to continue don't look good.
"It looks like he's not getting that shot," Hagle said.
NBC chief political correspondent Chuck Todd said Huntsman isn't the focus of the hordes of media descending on New Hampshire.
"The story's going to be Romney versus Santorum, and I'm not sure Huntsman is going to be able to get in that story line. It's going to be tough for him," Todd said. "This is it for him. It's do or die."
Even Huntsman's strongest supporters in Utah seem resigned to the campaign wrapping up.
"I think he's done," said Salt Lake advertising executive Tom Love, a longtime Huntsman friend and supporter. "He gambled. He got in the game and he put all his chips in New Hampshire."
Another Huntsman ally, Lew Cramer, the head of the World Trade Center Utah, said he's hoping for an outbreak of "upset fever" in New Hampshire.
"I'm hoping for a miracle," Cramer said. "I know that the governor is scheduling finance breakfasts and fund-raisers through January, so there's some optimism here."
Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller said the candidate "is outworking everyone in New Hampshire, spreading his message of restoring trust in Washington and reviving our economy.
"We expect to compete strongly here next week and move on to South Carolina where we have a strong ground game ready to activate."
Peter Spaulding, a top Huntsman adviser in New Hampshire, said the campaign is "very upbeat" and confident Huntsman will meet his goal of being among the top three finishers Tuesday.
The campaign is cobbling together support from independents in New Hampshire — who are able to vote in the GOP primary — a group, Spaudling said, includes both liberals and conservatives.
Paul is said to be competing for the same voters, but Spaulding said he believes fewer are leaning toward Paul's libertarian message. "For the most part, there are a lot of potential votes for Gov. Huntsman in the undeclareds."
A bigger issue for Huntsman may be that he's competing for the state's moderate voters with Romney.
Huntsman has tried to sell himself "as a more moderate version of Mitt Romney, more civil, more bipartisan, kinder and gentler toward President Obama," Scala said.
Voters may not be buying it, though.
"New Hampshire Republicans, they are a bit more moderate than Iowa Republicans," Scala said. "But they don't seem to be in the mood for that type of candidate."
And Romney's win in Iowa, however small, has left Huntsman unable "to say this week that Romney is a weak candidate who can't win the nomination of the party," Scala said.
By skipping Iowa, Scala said Huntsman likely alienated socially conservative voters who play a key role in the party by in effect telling them, "I can't talk to you people."
Yet, he said, Huntsman holds appeal for conservatives. "He seemed to box himself in early on and he could never figure a way out of the box," Scala said.
Wilson also questioned Huntsman's shift to the center.
"His ideological deviation from Republican orthodoxy, interestingly, has been one of style," Wilson said. "He's almost taken pleasure in putting a thumb in the eye of ideological conservatives … (but) this guy would not have been elected governor of Utah if he was some sort of left-wing renegade."
Hagle said Huntsman may have a more fundamental problem attracting support.
"There's no passion there. It's all very low key," Hagle said. "I'm not so convinced he doesn't mean what he says, but that he's willing to get behind it."
Huntsman's supporters blame his ties to the Democratic president. It was President Barack Obama who named Huntsman the U.S. ambassador to China in 2009, a posting he left only last year.
"The biggest problem is that the hard-core Republicans in the party couldn't get past the fact that he worked for Obama," Love said. "I think everyone understands that this was the big problem."
Dave Woodard, a political science professor at South Carolina's Clemson University, said Huntsman's connection to Obama definitely would be a turn-off to voters there.
"Good night, all they have to say over here is he's an appointment in the Obama administration," Woodard said. "They just can't abide him if he's ever done anything in the Obama administration. That's a kiss worse than death."
Although Romney was rejected in his 2008 bid for the presidency by some evangelical voters who don't consider Mormons fellow Christians, that hasn't seemed to be an issue this election.
Especially for Huntsman, who remains largely unknown to many voters.
"I don't think they know Jon Huntsman is from Utah or a Mormon or been an ambassador or anything," Woodard said. And once voters do find out more about him, he said it's his connection to Obama that will concern them, not his faith.
Scala said in New Hampshire, which has far fewer evangelical voters than Iowa, voters aren't comfortable focusing on religion.
"There's the New England attitude that your religion is your own business as long as it doesn't interfere with how you want to run the country," he said. "People don't like all that 'God talk' in New Hampshire."
It's not clear what the future holds for Huntsman should he not remain in the presidential race. Since leaving Beijing last year, he's purchased a family home in Washington, D.C., and an apartment in downtown Salt Lake City, which he has said will be his legal residence.
Many have long viewed him as a better candidate for the 2016 presidential race, should Obama win a second term in November.
Love said Huntsman has already positioned himself for the next presidential race.
"He might not have gotten the attention or the support of a certain amount of delegates or early voters, or the right-wing element of the Republican party," Love said. "But I would argue he's the favorite candidate of major national media. … if he doesn't continue, he walks out of this with his integrity intact and his reputation emboldened."
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