MERRIMACK, N.H. — Jon Huntsman has staked his presidential bid on doing well in New Hampshire. With few exceptions, the former two-term governor of Utah has campaigned exclusively in the Granite State. Two months ago, he moved his national campaign headquarters to Manchester, and he’s beginning to make some inroads there.
Huntsman explained his strategy this way: He wants to avoid the meteoric rises and flameouts of Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Herman Cain.
“I don’t want 15 minutes of fame,” Huntsman told reporters at the Merrimack Town Hall. “I want a sustained rise that isn’t fickle and isn’t short-lived, and in order to get that, you’ve gotta lay a substantive groundwork here in New Hampshire, which is what we’re doing.”
And the numbers show that Huntsman is getting just what he wants: a slow and steady rise in support. University of New Hampshire polling for the last two months in a row found 8 percent of likely voters in the Republican presidential primary saying they would vote for him. That’s the most he’s gotten so far. It puts him in fourth place, behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas).
The UNH poll finds that most voters have yet to line up behind a candidate, and that’s the case with many of the 70 people who showed up to hear Huntsman speak at the Merrimack Town Hall on Nov. 28. Voters like Chris Mauser, who said she’s still considering all the candidates.
“I haven’t even begun to make up my mind yet,” Mauser said.
Most people still don’t know who Huntsman is. Lousie Charney is among those who want to know more.
“We see the others, but we don’t hear too much about him,” Charney said. “He’s new, so let’s hear what he has to say.”
Charney has come with her friend, Priscilla Bernasconi.
“At this point, it’s between Huntsman and Romney, and I haven’t heard Mr. Huntsman talk, so I’d like to see him in person, and maybe get a chance to ask questions,” Bernasconi said.
She gets a chance.
“What’s your position on Social Security? I have six kids that I’m concerned about, plus their spouses, and lots of grandchildren,” Bernasconi asked Huntsman. “So I’m worried about Social Security, not for myself, but for them.”
“We can save Social Security,” Huntsman replies. “It was a commitment made to our people back in 1935, I think for good reason.”
Huntsman is trying to peel support away from Romney. Here he is making a pretty damning comment about Romney.
“And anyone who is in the hip pocket of Wall Street because of all the donations that they are picking up, like Mitt Romney, is these days is not going to be a change agent when it comes to fixing the too big to fail banking system,” Huntsman said.
Huntsman is not being entirely fair to Romney. Yes, Goldman Sachs is Romney’s biggest contributor. But Wall Street is also Huntsman’s main source of campaign money. The problem for Huntsman is that he’s been raising so little money. That could explain why his organization is so small: a dozen staffers in New Hampshire, and that includes his national headquarters staff. It’s a problem the architect of John McCain’s successful campaign, Mike Dennehy, has noticed.
“He doesn’t seem to have an organization the way John McCain did, certainly, or others who have spent a great deal of time in New Hampshire, and perhaps it’s just the fact that he’s not been able to connect that well yet, and he’s gotta get moving quick,” Dennehy said.
Part of Huntsman’s strategy has been to appeal to moderate Republicans and independents. He supports civil unions for gay couples. But he’s also attracting conservatives.
At the Merrimack Town Hall, Huntsman, dressed in dark pants, an open-collar white shirt and dark jacket, makes a connection with Mike Malzone, a tile setter who started the Merrimack Tea Party and who rushed here from work with smudges of grout on his clothes.
“Thanks for coming here this evening,” Malzone tells Huntsman. “I’m sorry for my attire.”
“Listen, I’m sorry for mine,” Huntsman replies. “I’d much rather be working like you.”
“Working and didn’t have time to clean up before I came here to see you tonight, but you’re going to make going to work a little bit easier tomorrow,” Malzone said. “It was very uplifting listening to you speak here this evening.”
Malzone is not the only conservative Huntsman has been impressing. Jennifer Horn, a former Republican congressional candidate, has been organizing forums with all of the major Republican presidential candidates. She said the recent town hall meeting in Nashua with Huntsman surprised about 100 people with some of things they learned.
“Jon Huntsman actually implemented a school voucher program in Utah, and Jon Huntsman has implemented a flat tax in Utah, some of those core red-meat issues of conservative Republicans,” Horn said. “Jon Huntsman has sort of been written off as the moderate Republican, and it turns out he’s got some very strong conservative core principles.”
Still, Huntsman has a long way to go in a very short time.
Mauser said he’s interesting, but she’s going to do some more homework.
“The one thing he said that did make sense was reforming the tax code,” Mauser said. “The tax code’s gotta be taken care of, and ObamaCare’s gotta go, so that much is something.”
There’s something else that experienced watchers of New Hampshire primaries have noticed that makes them wonder how serious Huntsman really is about winning the nomination. His appearance in Merrimack was his only one that day. The next day, he made two appearances. Compare that to McCain. Four years ago he would make six to eight campaign stops. Still, the number of people who are showing up at each of Huntsman’s appearances is growing.