In Final New Hampshire Push, Huntsman Embraces Underdog Role

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Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman pauses as he speaks to local business owners during a business lunch Jan. 5, 2012 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

Concord, New Hampshire

In the final days of his long New Hampshire barnstorm, Jon Huntsman has grown comfortable in a role he never expected to play. “I’m the underdog in this race,” Huntsman told a crowd of college kids and a few dozen reporters at a Concord hotel Friday morning. “New Hampshire loves an underdog.”

Huntsman’s closing swing through the state on which he’s staked his presidential hopes is a far cry from first one. Back in June, after a glitzy campaign kickoff, he carried a plane full of national press to a town hall in Exeter. In the months since, the press died away and Huntsman struggled to nudge his poll numbers north. Now he is hoping to borrow a page from Rick Santorum’s retail playbook and ride a pavement-pounding ground game to an upset victory in the Granite State. “You’ve got to get out and earn it,” he explains. “I’m betting things are still done the old-fashioned way.”

That much is clear. Huntsman has held almost 160 events in the state; his itinerary resembles a gubernatorial bid rather than a presidential campaign.  While he frequently boasts about his refusal to pander, Huntsman isn’t above trying to curry favor with Granite Staters by talking about his taste for lobster rolls, heaping praise on the state’s singular responsibilities and dropping his r’s. “Right here in New Hamp-shah!” he says, sounding like a SportsCenter anchor mimicking the cadences of a Red Sox fan. He is perhaps Utah’s only New Hampshire exceptionalist. His stump speech is a mix of nuanced policy and platitudes, earnestness and jocularity. When he delivers a potential applause line, he leans forward toward the crowd, hands gripping the lecturn, as if physically straining to make a connection.

(MORE: The Huntsman Fallacy)

There are a few signs that it’s working. After laboring to hook a series of endorsements from state legislators and small New Hampshire papers, on Thursday night he snagged a major endorsement from the Boston Globe, the region’s largest paper. “With a strong record as governor of Utah and US ambassador to China, arguably the most important overseas diplomatic post, Huntsman’s credentials match those of anyone in the field. He would be the best candidate to seize this moment in GOP history, and the best-prepared to be President,” the paper wrote, while chiding Romney for his “hyperbolic” attacks on Obama.

But as the Globe editorial writers concede, Romney seems “bound for success” in New Hampshire, running up a huge lead while Huntsman has inched ahead to the low double-digits. Part of the reason Huntsman has struggled to catch fire is his mixed messaging. Huntsman was tagged as a moderate early on because of his deviation from conservative dogma on issues like global warming. But he is a moderate in temperament only; his record and proposals on fiscal issues are among the most conservative in the field. Huntsman’s problem — one of them, anyway — is that he hasn’t made that clear.

During a question-and-answer portion in Concord, Huntsman was asked whether there’s still room in America for centrist politicians. His answer omitted the word — conservative — that is a prerequisite for a victory here as elsewhere. “Some people like to call it centrist or something else. I do what I do based on a view of this country and its future,” he said. “I’m a realist, at the end of the day. I don’t like to spend a lot of time posturing…I’m just going to be who I am.”

Voters may still be struggling to figure out what that is. As a result, Huntsman’s conservative bona fides — his advocacy of stripping loopholes from the tax code, record of growing jobs in Utah,  nuanced knowledge of foreign affairs, consistent opposition to abortion — doesn’t seem to be sinking in. And so Huntsman is left hoping, against long odds, that his hard work will help him break through the Romney firewall. “I feel very good about where we sit in New Hampshire,” he says. “I know this state loves an underdog.”