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Tomorrow, New Hampshire hosts its first in the nation presidential primary. And according to a poll out today from Suffolk University, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney holds a commanding lead. But that lead is also 10 points less than it was several days ago.
BLOCK: Of the six major Republican candidates still in the race, all but one have either led or flirted with the lead in the polls or in Iowa. The exception is former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman. The Suffolk University poll shows him running third in New Hampshire, behind Romney and Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
Our colleague Robert Siegel is in Manchester, where he spoke with Huntsman yesterday.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Jon. Whoo.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Up here. Up here, up here.
JON HUNTSMAN: How's everybody?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Jon.
HUNTSMAN: Yeah. Good to see you.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Great job.
HUNTSMAN: Thank you for being here.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The crowd outside the BeanTowne Coffee House in Hampstead, New Hampshire, is a mix: Huntsman campaign workers, local Republicans and undeclared independents. There are also some tourists, people who have come to New Hampshire, like baseball fans at spring training - they get to see the players up close - and a crowd of reporters and cameramen who cluster around Jon Huntsman as if he really were the rock star he aspired to be as a teenager.
Jon Huntsman is running as a conservative reformer. He's for congressional term limits. He's staunchly pro-life, and he's for a flat tax with just three brackets and no special exemptions or deductions.
HUNTSMAN: We've got special carve-outs for those who can afford a lobbyist and a lawyer on Capitol Hill. All these carve-outs and deductions are good for about 7 percent of the population. And I say, until we fix the tax code, until we improve the regulatory state of affairs, until we move toward greater, more confident and energy independence, we're going to have a hard time moving more than we have opportunity.
SIEGEL: But some of those carve-outs are pretty big and benefit a good number of people, for example, the mortgage interest deduction. We're better off without giving homeowners a break?
HUNTSMAN: I believe we are. I think we're incentivizing debt. We should be incentivizing equity. But beyond that, if we're going to do the job right in terms of clearing out all the loopholes in deductions, I say we clean it all out. We clean out all of the cobwebs. If you keep something in, then everybody is going to want their special break.
SIEGEL: What distinguishes Jon Huntsman in the GOP field is that he has actually worked in the executive branch of the federal government. He worked at the Department of Commerce and at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, and he was U.S. ambassador to Singapore, and then in the Obama administration, ambassador to China. In Asia, Huntsman used his fluent Mandarin, which he learned as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan.
In Saturday night's ABC New Hampshire debate, he drew fire from Mitt Romney for having served President Obama in Beijing.
MITT ROMNEY: Governor, you were, in the last two years, implementing the policies of this administration in China. The rest of us on the stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president being - from being put forward.
SIEGEL: The following morning in the NBC debate, Jon Huntsman fired back.
HUNTSMAN: I was criticized last night by Governor Romney for putting my country first. And I just want to remind the people here in New Hampshire and throughout the United States that I think...
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HUNTSMAN: He criticized me while he was out raising money for serving my country in China, yes, under a Democrat, like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They're not asking who - what political affiliation the president is. I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country: I will always put my country first, and I think that's important.
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SIEGEL: Jon Huntsman faults Mitt Romney on foreign policy, for example, Romney's pledge to formally cite China as a currency manipulator. Of course, he says the Chinese have manipulated their currency, keeping it artificially low. The U.S. has been calling them on it since the Bush administration, he says, and the Chinese have let the currency rise by 30 percent. Huntsman says that's one issue in Sino-American relations among many.
HUNTSMAN: You can either politicize it and get cheap points out of it, you know, by being heroic on the stage and get an applause line, or you can be a realist. I'm a realist. I know how that stuff works. You sit down with the Chinese at the negotiating table, and you've got a matrix of issues, one of which might be currency. The others are market access; you have North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Burma, South China Sea, the environment. You've got a lot of things on the table. You can't just one-off the relationship and expect it not to negatively impact everything else you're trying to do. It's highly unrealistic.
SIEGEL: On Afghanistan, you differ from your Republican rivals in that you say we should be getting out pretty soon. 2013, we should...
HUNTSMAN: That's right.
SIEGEL: ...be leaving.
HUNTSMAN: That's right.
SIEGEL: Would you be prepared as president to see civil war, to see a deterioration of the situation in countries where we've been fighting and for the U.S. to say we're out, we did our best, so be it?
HUNTSMAN: That may be inevitable, Robert. I'd like to tell the American people that over the last 10 years, we have something to show for our involvement: no more Taliban; al-Qaida is now in sanctuaries in Waziristan and beyond; Osama bin Laden is no longer around; we've had free elections; we've strengthened civil society; we've helped the police and military. I say it's time to get out. I believe civil war could very well be around the corner when you look at the lay of the land, the neighborhood. And I don't want to invest another penny in what could be a civil war, and I don't want another soldier to lose his or her life in what could be another civil war.
SIEGEL: That position distinguishes you in the Republican primaries. Let's say you get nominated, won't you and Barack Obama stand at some debate and say, well, we basically - we agree. We have the same view of Afghanistan. We have the same view of Iraq.
HUNTSMAN: He's listening to the generals on the ground, apparently, and he's taking a go-slow approach. I don't want to take a go-slow approach.
SIEGEL: Get out fast.
HUNTSMAN: I want to get out fast. I recognize that there's a counter-terror element to it, and indeed, it's a counterterrorist structure that we're going to have to have on all corners of the world whether the Horn of Africa, Yemen, Southeast Asia or Southwest Asia. That's intelligence, Special Forces and some training component. But I want to get out as quickly as we can because we have achieved our objective.
SIEGEL: In the dusk outside a private home in Bedford, New Hampshire, on Sunday, Jon Huntsman faced a makeshift podium of microphones and, once again, the army of media that now follows him. A reporter who's been here all year says Huntsman events in private homes used to draw crowds in single digits. Suddenly, they come in the dozens, sometimes a couple of hundred.
HUNTSMAN: I feel a little momentum; I feel a little surge. We're still clearly the underdog, and because of that, we have a lot of work ahead of us.
SIEGEL: The latest polls suggest that Huntsman is gaining by the day, but his rise would place him in third or with a huge surge in second place. Does he think he'll win a ticket out of New Hampshire to the primaries in South Carolina and Florida?
HUNTSMAN: I don't know how many tickets there are, but let's just say there are multiple tickets.
SIEGEL: More than two?
HUNTSMAN: I would say more than two.
SIEGEL: So if you came in third, you might still have a ticket to...
HUNTSMAN: I believe so.
SIEGEL: If you have a ticket out of New Hampshire, do you have the funds to compete in Florida, which will be - it's not going to be retail politics in coffee shops and diners. It's going to be all mass media in big media markets.
HUNTSMAN: Let's just say with each passing hour, beginning last night, we're getting a bump-up, a real bump-up in fundraising because people sense real momentum in New Hampshire. And these things have a way of taking care of themselves if you perform well. You've got to perform well; you've got to beat market expectations. And if you can do that, one of those tickets we just talked about coming out of New Hampshire could be a multimillion dollar affair. That's just the way it is.
SIEGEL: Well, Governor Jon Huntsman, thank you very much for talking with us.
HUNTSMAN: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: I spoke with Jon Huntsman yesterday. One possible source of funds is the Huntsman family fortune. Jon Huntsman Sr. founded a huge chemical company where the former Utah governor used to be CEO. The New York Times reported that Huntsman is reluctant to ask his father for money. The candidate called that story a little misinformed. He said the Huntsman family gives to humanitarian causes, and they don't consider a political campaign to be a humanitarian cause. Even so, the elder Huntsman is reported to have given much money to the Super PAC that supports his son. In Manchester, New Hampshire, this is Robert Siegel.
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