Dover, N.H. • With all his rivals crisscrossing Iowa on the eve of the nation’s first presidential contest, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman had New Hampshire to himself on Monday night and cast himself as the January surprise whose momentum is building.
“I know where I stand one week out, I’m the underdog,” Huntsman told a crowd of more than 100 at the McConnell Community Center here. “You know what else I know, New Hampshire loves an underdog.”
For Huntsman, it better.
The candidate’s presidential hopes for the most part hinge on a victory, or a close second, in this state’s primary, a key contest for Huntsman who decided long ago to skip the Iowa caucuses where his competitors have thrown millions of dollars hoping for a win.
Huntsman, taking a cue from Sen. John McCain’s previous campaigns, has avoided Iowa almost entirely, focusing nearly all of his resources into New Hampshire where Iowa’s social issues — like abortion or same-sex marriage — yield more to concerns about taxes and economics.
It’s a move that could, in the end, hurt Huntsman’s chances if former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney pulls out an Iowa win and rolls in with an election high that could crowd out the rest of the field.
Observers suggest that Huntsman’s anti-Iowa bid was an opportunity lost.
“Jon Huntsman made a tragic mistake in not campaigning in Iowa,” says Tim Albrecht, communications director for Iowa Gov. Terry Brandstad. “This week, the media is swarming candidates in Iowa while ignoring Jon Huntsman because he isn’t here.”
Albrecht, who previously worked for Romney and Steve Forbes, says Huntsman tried to cull some news media attention by slamming the caucuses — he said Iowans pick corn, not presidents — while his rivals are talking about Americans’ concerns for the country.
“Gov. Huntsman’s snarky remark, rather than focusing on real issues, says a lot more about the state of his campaign than the state of Iowa,” Albrecht said.
Huntsman — who blames his views against ethanol subsidy as a reason to avoid corn-filled Iowa — says he has no regrets.
Come Wednesday, “Iowa will be over and in a couple days the results will be forgotten and then people will look to the first primary state [and] because of the broad-based turnout here it’s a totally different outcome,” Huntsman said.
Huntsman’s decision to live or die by the New Hampshire primary makes sense, says Stephen Duprey, the Republican National Committeeman for New Hampshire.
“I think Huntsman was wise to pick one of the two states to focus on. Given that the social conservatives don’t seem to warm to him, New Hampshire is a better state for him to start in,” Duprey says. “I am not sure he missed much of an opportunity in Iowa.”
That said, though, Duprey notes that after all Huntsman’s work in the state, he can’t earn a weak showing and continue. Huntsman needs a “very strong finish in New Hampshire to be able to move on,” Duprey says.
In the basement of the community center Monday night, Huntsman said he would edge out former House Speaker Newt Gingrich in a forthcoming poll, but a survey out that morning showed him still barely into the double digits and far behind front-runner Romney.
Romney led the Suffolk University/7NEWS poll with 43 percent of likely primary voters, a rise of 2 percent in one day. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, came in second with 17 percent while Huntsman at 9 percent barely topped former House Speaker Newt Gingrich by a point.
And there weren’t many votes still up for grabs. Only 15 percent of likely primary voters say they were undecided and a large majority of Romney’s supporters say they don’t plan to change their minds.
Huntsman has cast himself as a solid conservative in his bid, though his chances in New Hampshire could depend on independent voters — or even Democrats who will cross over to cast ballots in the GOP contest. Some of those voters filled the audience Monday.
Kate Harris of Dover says she considers herself to be a Democrat but has voted in Republican primaries in the past and plans to vote next Tuesday.
“I would like [Huntsman] to be the person who debates Obama,” she says, noting that while she’ll back Huntsman in the primary, she may not do so if he makes it into the general election race.
Independents Tom Crosby and his wife, Justina, grabbed a second-row seat to hear Huntsman — the first candidate they’ve gone to see so far this campaign season.
“First one,” Tom says. “He’s the only one we’re really interested in.”
Justina Crosby notes that they will for sure be voting in next week’s primary. She says she’s undecided “but very impressed by [Huntsman] from what I’ve seen. ... I like that he hasn’t followed the crowd of other Republicans.”
And that includes, of course, following them to Iowa.