ROCHESTER, N.H. — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman has received the endorsement of two New Hampshire newspapers, the Keene Sentinel and the Valley News, of Lebanon. The endorsements capped off a week in which for the first time, Huntsman passed Texas Rep. Ron Paul for third place in a poll of likely voters in the New Hampshire Republican primary. But how well Huntsman does between now and the primary, just three weeks away, is very much up in the air.
Huntsman is trying to appeal to independent voters, who are allowed to vote in the New Hampshire primary.
“He’s more moderate than, say, Newt Gingrich or [Michele] Bachmann or [Rick] Santorum,” said Christian Dubois, a freshman at Saint Anselm College and an independent voter. “You have to be able to cooperate with the left, and he’s stated that he’s willing to do that.”
Huntsman said he can feel the energy he’s generating in the state. But the crowds he attracts don’t appear to bear that out. Half as many people turn out in Rochester as did to a similar meeting in Merrimack in November. But then again, for the Rochester event, he does have some tough competition: the Patriots game is about to begin.
Huntsman said some Republicans overlooked him at first because he served as President Obama’s ambassador to China. He brings up his service as an example of placing country over party. To bolster his case that he would work with Democrats, he cites his refusal to sign a pledge that he won’t raise taxes.
“I’m not going to sign those silly pledges like everybody on the debate stage has done,” Huntsman said. “I’m just not going to do that. I’m going to do what I think is right for the people I represent.”
There is another candidate who seems to be appealing to growing groups of independent voters, and that’s Paul. And there’s a big difference between the crowds Paul attracts and those Huntsman is getting.
About 40 people are clustered around a big Christmas tree in a corner of a large room at the Governor’s Inn, in Rochester. It’s a small crowd compared to the overflowing crush who packed the same room to hear Paul last month. But there are similarities: as with the crowds that come to hear Paul, there are families and independent voters.
Dubois concedes that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is likely to win the New Hampshire primary, but he holds out the hope that his candidate has a shot at second place.
“If he can come in (a) close third, or just barely beating Gingrich in New Hampshire, I think he’s going to be completely viable throughout the rest of the early primary states,” Dubois said.
Huntsman is also attracting conservative Republicans such as Brian Smeltz, who switched his support from Romney to Huntsman.
“You know, Romney says a lot of nice things, great things, but I just don’t trust that Romney would deliver the conservative cause that I believe Gov. Huntsman would,” Smeltz said.
By the end of the hour, Sharyn and Norman Stuart are carrying a Huntsman lawn sign out the door.
“We were very undecided at the time we walked in the door, and when he came in and spoke, everything just kind of seemed to click with us,” said Norman.
“He’s true to himself,” said Sharon. “I like that. A good man of character. You can tell that.”
The Stuarts believe that anything can happen between now and the primary.
“What is it? December what, 18th today? And we just finally found the person. We listened to him, and we like him,” Sharon said. “We’ll vote for him. But I think most New Hampshire people really haven’t made up their minds yet. They’re kind of laid back, and they keep things close to the vest.”
With three weeks to go, the polls show Romney solidly in the lead, with Gingrich in second place. If you judge Huntsman by the small crowd he’s drawn, you might end up thinking that he doesn’t have a shot. But talking to the voters at this Huntsman event, you get the sense that it’s still a wide-open race.