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Republican White House hopeful Jon Huntsman has a delicate task this week. He's campaigning in New Hampshire, where he's trying to set himself apart from the crowded GOP field, but not too far apart.
As NPR's Scott Horsley reports, the state has a history of welcoming independent-minded candidates.
SCOTT HORSLEY: As Jon Huntsman and his wife walked down Main Street in Concord this afternoon, trailed by news cameras, a passerby asked, who's that? The question is not surprising for a candidate who has run no TV ads in New Hampshire so far, and who's polling at just three percent in the state.
But Huntsman was undaunted as he addressed a Politics and Eggs Breakfast this morning at St. Anselm College.
JON HUNTSMAN: We're going to win this state. We're going to win this primary because this state, along with our entire country, is crying out for a common sense, practical discussion on what we're going to get this country moving again economically.
HORSLEY: Huntsman is billing himself as the candidate for voters who are tired of political sideshows. Former state GOP chairman Fergus Cullen, who was at the breakfast, says he hasn't picked a favorite candidate yet, but Huntsman is on the short list.
FERGUS CULLEN: I think he's ideologically positioned in the sweet spot of the electorate here. You know, he's not the angry candidate. And I've seen lots of candidates come through here this year who are trying to appeal to the bright, shiny object which is the Tea Party. But, you know, registered independents will outnumber self-identified Tea Partiers come primary day.
HORSLEY: And Cullen thinks those more centrist voters will warm to what he calls Huntsman's pragmatic brand of conservatism.
CULLEN: There are a lot of John McCain-like qualities to his message in that sort of I'm the grown up, I'm the truth teller. I'm not going to pander to you. I'm not going to tell you just what you want to hear.
HORSLEY: McCain's name often comes up whenever Huntsman is discussed here, and it's no accident. So many former McCain advisors are working for Huntsman, his campaign events look like McCain staff reunions. They're hoping that New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary and its retail style of politics will again be a launching pad for an independent-minded candidate.
University of New Hampshire political analyst Dante Scala says that's possible, but it's easier said than done.
DANTE SCALA: You know it's tough to be an insurgent each and every day. It's tough to display that personality that John McCain was able to pull off. It's tough to get that mix of somewhat more moderate and still hold to conservative values. And that's going to be Jon Huntsman's challenge in New Hampshire, as well as elsewhere.
HORSLEY: That challenge is evident on the campaign trail. Huntsman set himself apart from Republican rivals Rick Perry and Michelle Bachman last month, when he tweeted: I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.
But the jobs plan he unveiled this week was pure GOP boilerplate - lower taxes, fewer regulations, and drill, baby, drill.
HUNTSMAN: We've got to phase out the deductions, loopholes, and corporate welfare, get the rate down to a more competitive level. And along with that, we've got to free the red tape out of the marketplace. We've got to deal realistically with the regulatory barriers that are frightening the marketplace.
HORSLEY: Huntsman missed an opportunity to distinguish himself during a GOP debate in Iowa last month, when along with every other Republican candidate, he raised his hand to say he would reject a deficit-cutting deal, even if it included $10 in spending cuts for every dollar in additional tax revenue. Pressed about that this morning, Huntsman said he doesn't believe higher taxes are a good idea. But he seemed to leave the door open, just a crack, for compromise.
HUNTSMAN: At the end of the day, you got to make the system work. And a 10-to-1 deal? I mean, you're sitting at the negotiating table, who wouldn't give that consideration if it were the real world? But it's not the real world.
HORSLEY: Scala says it may be easier for Huntsman to draw contrasts with Rick Perry than it was with the chameleon-like Mitt Romney. If all else fails, Huntsman jokes, he has another weapon in his campaign arsenal.
HUNTSMAN: People here love their guns, I've come to learn. And with a name like Huntsman, how can you lose?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HORSLEY: Huntsman will be campaigning at the Concord Gun Show this weekend.
Scott Horsley, NPR news, Concord, New Hampshire.
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