Jon Huntsman’s First Foray into New Hampshire’s Retail Politics

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REUTERS / Brian Snyder

Mary Kaye Huntsman surveyed the crowd of 60+ people spilled across Juliana Bergeron’s lawn on Main Street in Keene, New Hampshire. Her husband, Jon, had just finished his first event of the day and the couple lingered to chat with voters and reporters. The event had been so packed, not everyone’s hands had been shaken nor every question answered. “This certainly wasn’t like the old days,” she marveled, “where it was just a few of us in a van. I remember one time we went to an event at a picnic site and we set it all up, balloons and everything and we waited. Nothing. No one came! And then we realized we were at the wrong picnic area, so we packed up and rushed off to another park.”

This week’s rollout of a New Hampshire campaign was nowhere near as simple for the former Utah governor and recent ambassador to China. Forget the primaries, Huntsman had the look and feel – and heavy choreography — of a general election nominee. The potential candidate — he’s just exploring a run at the moment — traveled by seven-car motorcade and with a staff that rivaled Hillary Clinton’s on her New Hampshire roll out in 2007. And he had the press to match. After Huntsman’s first event Thursday night, George Stephanopolous interviewed the governor – or is it ambassador? – for Good Morning America. Dozens of members of national media crowded into two house parties Friday morning. There was John King from CNN’s State of the Union. The Washington Post, The New York Times and USA Today all sent their top political reporters.

“I didn’t realize he was a superstar, Barack Obama type,” grumbled one attendee whose view of the potential candidate was blocked by two television camera men.Huntsman played the role well. He spoke eloquently, no hemming and hawing. He looked natural in his brown corduroys and white shirt with the collar open and the sleeves rolled up. He stood quietly, with his arms at his side — no sudden hand gestures. That combined with his calm and reassuring tone made me think of an animal trainer trying to woo skittish wild animals. Except that his subject matter was almost exclusively economics.“From 10,000 miles away in China, things there are pretty good,” Huntsman says, speaking of his recent stint as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Beijing. “They’ve got 8-9-10% growth rates that can go on forever. They’re giddy with pride. Then take a look at our country and we’re down. But you have to take heart because we are the envy of the world.”

Huntsman underlined how important this election is. “It will set the course for spending,” he said. “We’re $14 trillion in debt. That should be a campaign slogan by itself: $14 trillion, exclamation point! To say nothing of $52 trillion in obligations both public and private. Everyone’s going through the deleveraging process.” Huntsman praised both Obama’s fiscal commission and Paul Ryan for taking important steps to address deficits. And, yes, he says he support Ryan’s budget, Medicare changes and all. “We’ve hit the wall and everyone knows it,” Huntsman says. “And we’ve got to be willing to take tough medicine going forward.”

For the most part, voters didn’t seemed to be bothered that Huntsman, who may be seeking the GOP nomination, used to work for the guy he’s trying to oust. Marilyn Soper, a retired executive director of a non-profit organization from Keene, thanked Huntsman for his service, saying being ambassador to China was akin to her two sons serving in the military. “I thanked him for being clear that he was not serving Obama, but his country,” Soper said.

But not every one was convinced. “I think he has to explain it better,” said John Musarra, a former investment manager from Hancock. “I want to know if he gave money to Obama to get that coveted position.”Huntsman himself avoided virtually any mention of Obama or any of his rivals. He focused on a positive message that tried to expand as much as possible on his biography as a businessman in the Huntsman family chemical business – run by his brother, it grosses an eye popping $8 billion annually – and as an ambassador and governor. And, of course, a father: “Tell us about yourself,” Dick Bell, a retired businessman from Hancock, asked at Huntsman’s second house party of the day in Hancock. “Well, most importantly, I’m a husband and father of seven,” Huntsman replied.

They say in New Hampshire that you don’t really know a candidate until you’ve met him six times. This was Huntsman’s first trip – so he has a ways to go. But his resume was intriguing to most of the moderate leaning Republicans in attendance this morning. “I want to hear more from him,” Bell said, adding he was disappointed with Huntsman’s biographical answer. “I wish he’d been more detailed, given us more about his business experience. On all of his questions, I’d need to know a lot more before I voted for him.” Huntsman, welcome to New Hampshire, where retail means answering every last question.