SALT LAKE CITY — GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr. predicted Friday that New Hampshire voters will rally around him in the nation's first primary.
Huntsman stopped short of saying he would win in New Hampshire but said he is moving up in the polls there, sparking what he said was a 240 percent boost in fundraising.
"We're going to do great in New Hampshire. We've gone from the margin of error candidate, zero, to low double digits. I like our position," he said. "More than that, I like the way we're connecting with the people of New Hampshire."
He has lagged behind the GOP field in virtually every poll and his campaign was reportedly almost out of cash two weeks ago. Huntsman contributed about half of the $4 million his campaign reported raising through Sept. 30.
The former Utah governor and U.S. ambassador to China was in Salt Lake City for the dedication of the $110 million, 156,000-square foot expansion of the hospital at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, named for his family.
Huntsman, among the dignitaries speaking at the ceremony, joked that former President Richard Nixon's declaration of a national war on cancer came at a time when Republicans still "believed in science."
He reminded reporters of the quip during a brief media conference after the ceremony and said voters are looking for "sane, common-sense, practical, problem-solving leadership."
And he took a swipe at the other Mormon in the race, former Utah Olympic leader Mitt Romney. Romney, who has the support of most Utah GOP leaders in both his 2008 and 2012 bids, has been a frontrunner.
"I would have to say that at a time when the American people are looking for leadership, being a well-lubricated weather vane, being on different sides of the critically important issues of the day as Mitt Romney has found himself over and over again, is not what the American people are looking for," Huntsman said.
He later made a similar statement on CNN's The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.
"You can't be a perfectly lubricated weather vane on the important issues of the day, whether it's Libya, whether it's the debt ceiling, whether it's the discussion around the Kasich bill in Ohio, where Gov. Romney has been missing in action in terms of showing any kind of leadership," Huntsman told Blitzer, according to a transcript of the interview.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, recently signed into law a bill curbing public employees' collective bargaining rights. Huntsman supports the law, the subject of a November referendum in Ohio, and has accused Romney of flip-flopping on the issue.
If Romney wins in New Hamsphire, Huntsman's campaign will be over, University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said.
"There's only one ticket out of New Hampshire for a moderate, center right candidate. It's either Romney or Huntsman. It's not going to be both," Scala said. "It's win or go home, I think, for Huntsman."
Scala said despite Huntsman's reported money woes, the candidate will have to start running television commercials at some point to broaden his support. Huntsman's strategy of meeting personally with voters through some 80 town hall meetings is "a time-honored way to do it, but it's also a slow and steady way to do it," he said "You can't do one without the other."
Huntsman said there's no question he's staying in the race at least through New Hampshire, which is likely to hold its primary election on Jan. 10. He recently uprooted his campaign headquarters from Florida to New Hampshire, a move widely seen as making the Granite State a must-win.
"We have a dedicated and loyal following," Huntsman said. "You need a message that resonates with folks at this point in our country's history. It's not about artificiality. It's not about throwing ads on the air. It's about connecting with the people of New Hampshire. That's how it's done and that's how we're doing it."
He said he held a town hall meeting in New Hampshire Thursday via telephone from Salt Lake that drew 3,000 people. "You've got to earn it. You've got to grind it out," he said. "We've done 80 events in New Hampshire so far. We're going to do 80 more."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who made an unsuccessful bid for the White House in 2000, said a loss in New Hampshire doesn't mean Huntsman can't stay in the race.
"Of course he can," Hatch said. "This thing can turn on a dime."
Huntsman's wife, Mary Kaye, said Friday she has "noticed lately something happening as I watch Jon get his message out. There is something that the media's not picking up and the polls are not picking up. But there is a silent majority out there, a hollowed out middle that is looking for a voice."
Mary Kaye Huntsman said the family is taking the advice of Gracie Mei, the couple's adopted daughter from China.
"She said, 'Daddy, you're like the tortoise and the hare. ... Slow and steady wins the race.'"
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