LACONIA, N.H. — The political world is spinning in Iowa this week. And Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman says he doesn’t care.
He’s hunkered down in New Hampshire, waiting for Tuesday’s Iowa caucuses to end and the race to turn to this fiercely independent state — the only one where the former Utah governor is competing in earnest.
“It’s wondrously quiet here in New Hampshire these days. We have it all to ourselves,” Huntsman said Thursday night in Wolfeboro, where he attracted a crowd of roughly 200 people in the town where rival Mitt Romney has a summer home.
“A day or two after the Iowa caucuses play out, no one will remember what went on there, and everyone will be focused on New Hampshire,” he said on the second day of a 13-day marathon of campaigning that ends with the Jan. 10 Republican primary.
Come this time next week, the Republicans who triumphed in Iowa will campaign here with momentum on their side and they’ll have to contend with Huntsman, who has planted a flag in the state. Polling suggests his popularity in New Hampshire may be growing, but his margin for error in the race certainly is not.
He conceded the obvious, acknowledging that he cannot remain a viable presidential contender — and likely won’t stay in the race — if he finishes below third place in New Hampshire, where Mitt Romney has a comfortable lead in polls and a strong organization from his failed 2008 bid.
“If we cross that threshold and the headline or the storyline is, ‘Huntsman did better than expected, he exceeded market expectations,’ then you know you’ve done something and you can carry on,” he told The Associated Press from the back of a black SUV speeding toward the Laconia Rotary Club.
It’s a relatively low bar, but a bar nonetheless set by a candidate who has been careful not to set the terms for his departure from a contest that’s been difficult from the beginning.
Huntsman was expected to be a force in the race long before he officially joined the crowded field in June. Handsome and well-spoken, the 51-year-old California native offered a unique set of qualifications as a former GOP governor with experience working under four presidents, three Republicans and Democrat Barack Obama, whom he served as ambassador to China.
Perhaps it’s the connection to Obama, but Huntsman has struggled to win over the more conservative voters who typically dominate Republican primaries. It could be that he offers more moderate positions on global warming, the war in Afghanistan and gay rights. Despite those stances, he has portrayed himself as the most electable conservative and has promised not to pander to the likes of businessman turned TV star Donald Trump or to shift positions simply to score political points.
Huntsman retreated to New Hampshire largely out of necessity; the state, like South Carolina, allows independents to participate in the Republican primary. Iowa, where social conservatives and evangelicals tend to dominate, wasn’t the right fit for a Mormon like him.
Overall, his strategy is similar to John McCain’s in 2008 — hope that New Hampshire’s independent voters lift him to victory, giving him momentum heading into next-up South Carolina and Florida. But that carries risks because Huntsman would have to court them without turning off Republicans whose support he’d need to build a broad — and winning — coalition for the GOP primary.
“It’s our strategy,” says Huntsman. “I might as well own it.”
He has spent the past few months working to build a campaign organization in the state, so much so that he’s competitive with those of Romney, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, considered his strongest competitors. Going all in, he moved his national headquarters from Florida to New Hampshire in September but has struggled to win big-name endorsements in the state. Still, Huntsman recently ear ned the backing of three newspapers, including the state capital’s Concord Monitor.
But without the funds for a full-fledged television advertising campaign, Huntsman has depended on outside help to deliver his message to the full electorate. An independent super PAC designed to help Huntsman spent $1.2 million earlier in the month on two weeks of television ads aired across the state. His campaign released an online video this week that jabs Paul as “unelectable.” Bu t Huntsman acknowledged Thursday that the campaign may not have the money to air the ad on television.
He’s partly relying on New Hampshire’s reputation for going its own way.
“People here in New Hampshire, they’re not influenced by what comes out of another state,” Huntsman said earlier this week. “They want to do their own (due) diligence, they want to get to know the candidates, they want to draw their own conclusions. So, putting our eggs in the first primary basket is a good strategy.”
And he reminded the few dozen New Hampshire voters at a Rotary Club luncheon on Thursday of New Hampshire’s tradition.
“You’re going to upend conventional wisdom once again Jan. 10. And we’re going to go on to win this election,” he said. “I’m just putting you all on early notice.”
At least in New Hampshire, he’s scoring points for bypassing Iowa.
“He’s made a great choice coming here,” said Jim Emery, a retired automotive repair shop owner who attended Huntsman’s town hall meeting in Pelham on Wednesday night and dismissed the Iowa caucus results as essentially meaningless. Emery, a registered Republican, said electability is a top concern — but he hasn’t settled on a candidate yet.
“Ron Paul has some great ideas — totally unelectable,” Emery said. “Newt Gingrich probably knows the inside better than anyone else, but again, I question electability. Romney is probably the front-runner for a reason, but he doesn’t inspire — I don’t know — a sense of fire. He doesn’t set me on fire.”
And therein lies another Huntsman challenge — his low-key demeanor.
He freely admits that he’s not a verbal bomb thrower in a political era where brash rhetoric is often rewarded, particularly by a Republican electorate looking for a nominee who will aggressively take it to Obama. Huntsman tries to turn his style into a positive, saying that he’s outlining goals that are achievable, while his opponents are “campaigning on a bunch of nutty ideas to whoop up folks in a crowd.”