Huntsman Struggles For Traction In New Hampshire

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Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has struggled to gain traction in the race for the GOP presidential nomination. Huntsman, a former Obama administration ambassador to China, has has staked his whole campaign on New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary. But even in that moderate state, Huntsman's candidacy does not seem to be catching fire.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Most candidates see a strong showing in the New Hampshire primary as important. For Republican Jon Huntsman, it's essential. The former Utah governor has staked his whole campaign on the New Hampshire primary. New Hampshire Public Radio's Josh Rogers reports.

JOSH ROGERS, BYLINE: Jon Huntsman travelled to New York City this past weekend to poke fun at his New Hampshire-centric approach on "Saturday Night Live."


JON HUNTSMAN: I love all of America: From Dallas, Texas, to Manchester, New Hampshire, from the majestic Rocky Mountains to New Hampshire's scenic Lake Winnipesaukee, from the innovation of Silicon Valley to the affordable outlet malls in North Conway, New Hampshire.

ROGERS: A campaign where New Hampshire is all-important wasn't always the plan. Huntsman, who served as the Obama administration's ambassador to China, originally based his campaign in Florida. Organizing in South Carolina was another early priority. But lack of traction in the polls, spotty fundraising and staff shake-ups forced Huntsman to take a different approach: Move his entire campaign to New Hampshire and go for broke in a state with a reputation for giving underdogs a shot.

HUNTSMAN: Huntsman is the name(ph) . Good to see you. Hi, nice to meet you.

ROGERS: Huntsman's now been at it for months and his poll numbers here remain in the single digits. On a recent day, he toured two factories near the Vermont border. At Premier Precision metal forgery, he promised to keep his pitch brief.

HUNTSMAN: We've got to make stuff. We've got to manufacture more. And I believe we've got an opening.

ROGERS: The response from the 20 or so employees was polite, though several said this was the first they'd heard or seen of the candidate. Voters' lack of familiarity with Huntsman could end soon, thanks to some new TV ads.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: No one has shown up we can trust as a conservative.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Who actually has a chance to win.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: And not some phony who tells me one thing and you another.

ROGERS: The ads are being paid by the pro-Huntsman SuperPAC, Our Destiny. The SuperPAC has reportedly spent well over a million dollars on the ads, far more than any candidate or group has spent locally.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Why haven't we heard of this guy?

ROGERS: Name recognition is just part of Huntsman's challenge in New Hampshire. There's also the fact he's yet to attract much support from core Republican voters. A University of New Hampshire poll released last month showed him as more popular among independents than among voters in his own party. And talk to Huntsman supporters and you find plenty of people like Jim MacDonald, who led Huntsman through the metal shop.

JIM MACDONALD: I probably shouldn't say this but I typically have voted Democrat in the past. And I'm not happy with the way things are going right now with the Democratic Party and I really believe in him.

ROGERS: University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala says for Huntsman to pull off what he's repeatedly promised, a win in New Hampshire, he'll need more support from GOP regulars. And Scala says many of them have the former Utah governor pigeon-holed.

DANTE SCALA: If you want like a milder, more bipartisan version of Mitt Romney, well, there's Jon Huntsman. But I think the dilemma right now is not a lot of Republicans, even New Hampshire Republicans, want that.

ROGERS: Huntsman, who reserves his rare campaign attack lines for Mitt Romney, chafes at this. But Huntsman also recognizes that success may hinge on getting Republicans who've already dismissed him to reassess.

HUNTSMAN: I think people are will, genuinely willing to give us what I think is a first look, because many didn't the first go around. You know, you worked overseas during a Democratic administration, even though I worked for Reagan and Bush and Bush, and they say, ah, we'll consider others before him. But I think now it's getting down to a lot of conservatives who are saying, wait a minute, did we miss something?

ROGERS: In the meantime, Huntsman says he plans to make sure New Hampshire primary voters don't miss him. It's his only hope.

For NPR News, I'm Josh Rogers in Concord, New Hampshire.

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