Winslow Townson, Associated Press
FILE - In this Dec. 12, 2011, file photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman listens to veteran Peter Shonk of Dublin, N. H., after addressing the Peterborough and Jaffrey-Ringe Rotary meeting in Peterborough, N.H.

BOSCAWEN, N.H. — Jon M. Huntsman Jr. glanced around at New Hampshire's barren political landscape.

"It's wonderfully empty," he said with a grin.

That was certainly true in this tiny town, where Huntsman had just emerged from a leisurely tour of a belt factory. He, his wife and a daughter had time to learn perhaps more than they ever wanted to know about belt making.

Huntsman, 51, a former governor of Utah and former ambassador to China, is the only Republican presidential candidate campaigning in New Hampshire right now. While the rest of the pack feeds on itself in Iowa, which votes Tuesday, Huntsman has spurned that state.

"They pick corn in Iowa," he says, "but they actually pick presidents here in New Hampshire."

He ignored Iowa not so much by choice but imperative. His strategy is based on the theory that the independents who can vote in New Hampshire's Republican primary will be more hospitable to him than the conservatives and evangelicals who dominate the Iowa caucuses. Independents make up 40 percent of registered voters here.

New Hampshire voters, he said in an interview, "speak to a broad-based electability."

The conundrum for the low-key Huntsman is that he is perceived as a moderate, and while he is banking on that perception to some extent, he also rejects it. And so the picture is a bit scrambled.

His television ads call him a "consistent conservative." He does oppose abortion rights and support gun rights, but he does not mention those things. Nor does he mention that he was appointed ambassador by President Barack Obama.

His wife, Mary Kaye, told workers on the factory floor here that he was perceived as a moderate because of his temperament, not his voting record.

Instead of focusing on ideology, Huntsman has warmed to his identity as the Man Who Would Dare Skip Iowa. How that state votes, he said, "doesn't really matter."

Actually, both Iowa and New Hampshire have spotty records in picking the party's eventual nominee. But Huntsman is enjoying a moment in the sun, such as it is, soaking up some of the bandwidth that will no doubt be diverted once the hordes arrive Wednesday.

He drew more than 200 people Thursday night to a rally in Wolfeboro, where Mitt Romney, the front-runner in New Hampshire, owns a vacation home. Still, Huntsman can cite some recent progress in the polls. He inched up to 12 percent in Thursday's Public Policy Polling. That survey put him roughly even with Newt Gingrich. Huntsman's main message is that the United States is not living up to its potential.

"We're in a funk, we're dispirited and this isn't who we are as Americans," he told workers here.

He concluded with a reminder that he was here when others were not.

"You've got to meet folks, they have to feel who you are inside or they can't make a proper or a fair judgment," he said.