NASHUA, N.H. — Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman said Monday that his intense focus on New Hampshire is paying off, though he's still being met by some blank looks.
Watching Huntsman enter a Nashua diner surrounded by television cameras, voter Jimmy Pacheco at first mistook the former Utah governor for New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, and not a flicker of recognition crossed his face when he heard Huntsman's name. But by the time Huntsman reached his booth, the former truck driver greeted him like an old friend, complimented him on his "pretty wife" and said afterward that he probably would vote for Huntsman.
Noting that Huntsman is skipping Iowa's Tuesday caucuses and staking his hopes on a strong showing in New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary, Pacheco said, "He cares about us."
Two minutes earlier, Pacheco had said he was leaning toward former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who has long been the front-runner in New Hampshire.
After stopping by several Nashua businesses and restaurants, Huntsman told reporters that New Hampshire is a place where an underdog can come from behind and beat expectations.
"It happens time and time again here in New Hampshire. It's where message matters, it's where grass-roots politics is rewarded, and this is a state that is finely tuned to finding leaders and then sending them south," he said.
While he lags far behind Romney in polls, Huntsman said Romney won't necessarily pull off a big win in New Hampshire.
"I think there will be more than a single ticket leaving New Hampshire. We're not concluding at all at this point that anyone is going to win this big," he said. "I don't think anyone's looking for a coronation. I don't think anyone wants the establishment to tell them for whom to vote."
At another restaurant, GOP voter Matt Dobski said he was closer to backing Huntsman after meeting him but remained undecided. He said he likes Romney but doesn't like the health care law he enacted in Massachusetts, finds former House Speaker Newt Gingrich too polarizing, and thinks Texas Rep. Ron Paul is too extreme.
Huntsman, in contrast, "is probably one of the only candidates who's been consistent in all his policies and what's needed to change America," Dobski said. "That's important because, right now, everybody's waffling to say what they need to say to get votes. ... So a guy like Huntsman could really come through and steal the show, if he gets the media exposure he needs."
After having the state to himself last week, Huntsman soon will have plenty of company. Only seven days separate the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary
Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann plan to head straight to South Carolina after Iowa and then return to New Hampshire for two debates just before the primary.
Huntsman downplayed those debates, saying there have been too many already.
"I think with each passing debate, they're less and less important," he said. "People see them more as show business."