By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times –
LACONIA, N.H. — The Rotarians of Laconia applauded when Jon Huntsman Jr., the former Utah governor, announced that he was celebrating the 130th New Hampshire event of his presidential campaign. They listened politely to his talk as they dined on their chicken buffet lunch. But when it came time for questions, skepticism reigned.
His first questioner wanted to know how Huntsman, as “a serious contender,” had failed to qualify for the Virginia ballot. The second asked how Huntsman — at 9 percent support here in a recent Boston Globe poll — would have run his campaign differently in hindsight. A third asked Huntsman to pledge that he wouldn’t squelch Republicans’ chance of defeating President Barack Obama by running as an independent if he lost the GOP nomination — a rumor that has been circulating among voters here via email.
“I’ve only answered that one at least 150 times,” Huntsman replied with more than a hint of impatience. “I’m not running as an independent. I’m running as a Republican, and I have every confidence that we’re going to do well as a Republican.”
As his rivals campaigned this week in Iowa, Huntsman had New Hampshire, the state where his fate rests, virtually to himself. He drew some sizable crowds, including more than 200 people Thursday night to a town hall in Wolfeboro, where front-runner Mitt Romney owns a summer home.
But even though he likes to say that the state is going to “upend conventional wisdom” in the Jan. 10 primary, there is no evidence of a groundswell for his candidacy.
With little more than a week before the primary, Huntsman is trailing Romney by 28 percentage points. His schedule has been erratic. He will head into the new year with a burst of energy — 10 events over two days. But on Tuesday, as Romney jetted between New Hampshire and Iowa, Huntsman’s one public appearance was on Fox News’ “On the Record.” On Wednesday, when every other major candidate had a minimum of three events in Iowa (Michele Bachmann made 11 stops over 12 hours), Huntsman held his first event of the week: an evening town hall in Pelham.
“If you’re going to win in New Hampshire and you are not that well known as a candidate, you’re going to have to work harder, spend more money and have more effort than anybody else that’s out there, and he just hasn’t done that,” said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “He could be running for 2016; he could be running for a spot in the Cabinet. People run for opportunities down the road.”
When Huntsman announced his bid for the Republican nomination this summer with a splashy media debut, strategists for Romney feared that the political committee backed by Huntsman’s wealthy father would blanket the New Hampshire airwaves with ads to boost his bid and tear down his rivals.
But although the Our Destiny PAC has spent $2.2 million — it aired its first attack ad against Romney this weekend on Boston-area television — its message that Huntsman is the “most consistent conservative” does not appear to have energized the electorate.
In a Boston Globe poll released on Christmas Day, more than a quarter of likely Republican voters named Texas Rep. Ron Paul as the “most consistent conservative,” followed by Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich; only 7 percent gave Huntsman that designation. Last month, nearly a third of likely Republican voters in a WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll said they did not know enough about Huntsman to offer an opinion — recognizing him less than any other major candidate.
Still, at each event this week, Huntsman made the case that he would be the strongest GOP candidate against Obama — because, he said, he could appeal to Democrats and independents as well as Republicans.
He has aggressively taken on Paul and stepped up his criticism of Romney, going beyond his usual slight that unlike the former Massachusetts governor, he won’t contort himself “into a pretzel to please whatever group I’m standing in front of.”
“The establishment wants to tell you that we’ve already got somebody chosen in Gov. Romney — I say nonsense,” Huntsman told the audience in Wolfeboro. “The last thing this country needs is a status quo president at a time when change is so desperately required.”
Huntsman impressed a number of voters in the crowd, some of whom said they hadn’t heard much about him before receiving a postcard in the mail announcing the event. Retired physician Robert Leipold said that before this week, he had considered Huntsman “dead on arrival.”
“I had written you off, but I think you’re going to rise again,” Leipold told the candidate. Like others in the crowd, Leipold said he had doubts that Huntsman — with his low-key approach — would be the best candidate to take on Obama. But he said he planned to vote for him anyway.
“He represents my values that I want to see infused in the government and he represents an integrity that I admire, so he’s my guy,” Leipold said. And if Huntsman doesn’t win, he added, “this builds a name recognition and a base for next time.”