Durham, N.H. • Six months into his presidential race and just days before New Hampshire voters hit the ballot box Tuesday, Jon Huntsman takes the microphone and feigns shock at his situation.
“I can’t believe I’m here,” he says to a crowd at a printing press manufacturing plant. “This is unbelievable.”
It’s a stock laugh line that the former Utah governor has used, and used, and used. But soon, Huntsman may be able to drop that line. Belief is in the air.
Tuesday marks the biggest test of Huntsman’s White House bid, a primary contest that he has thrown nearly all his resources, time and effort at, and one that could prop up, or on the other hand, end, or fatally wound, his chances if he comes up short.
“I feel a little momentum,” the former governor told reporters Sunday night. “I feel a little surge. We’re still clearly the underdog and because of that we have a lot of work ahead of us ... and we’re not going to stop until we reach the finish line.”
Huntsman has watched all of his mainstream rivals — each in turn — bask in their share of the spotlight, a bewildering reality to the Huntsman camp still awaiting its turn. The fact that the glow has missed him so far is not for lack of trying.
After whittling his ambitious, three-state campaign plan down to just the first primary state, Huntsman essentially moved into the Hilton Garden Inn in Manchester and headed out to meet every voter.
After thousands of handshakes, scores of town halls addressed and millions spent, Huntsman finds himself struggling in the shadow of front-runner Mitt Romney and losing key independent and moderate voters to Rep. Ron Paul.
Huntsman has bounced up and down in the polls in the past week, but hovers between 8 percent and 11 percent. A tracking poll by Suffolk University and 7News shows the candidate slowly surging up, though it was unclear immediately how solid his support was.
Huntsman supporters are wondering why their guy didn’t pick up more momentum before.
“I don’t know why. I really don’t know why,” said Mike Daigle of Stratham, N.H. “He has a really good message; he’s down to earth; he’s honest; he’s trustworthy. Maybe you’ll see something different on Tuesday.”
Ben Wheeler of Rye, N.H., agrees.
“I think he’s going to have a better showing than what we think he might have in New Hampshire,” Wheeler says. “He’s starting to catch on in New Hampshire. I have a lot of friends who are registered Democrats who are starting to talk about Huntsman and see him as a viable candidate.”
But there’s the rub: Democrats don’t vote in the Republican primary, although that’s the support Huntsman seems to be attracting.
Boxed in • Huntsman’s campaign has touted him as a conservative, former governor of a conservative state and pushed that he is anti-abortion, fiscally conservative and wants to clean up the tax code, all very key Republican litmus tests.
Huntsman makes a point at every campaign stop that he’s not there to pander. He’s not going to “contort” himself into a pretzel ideologically, he says, just to get someone’s vote.
It’s an approach that’s worked well with some voters.
“He seems to be fairly moderate,” says David Macdonald. “He’s not a whack-job from the right or a whack-job from the left. I’m just too tired of all that in our government.”
But not so with others.
“I’ve got to say he’s very articulate and clear,” says Justin Wilson of Henniker, N.H., after attending a Huntsman town hall. “Some things he’s pretty good on. A lot of stuff he says on taxes [are] right.”
So you’ll vote for him?
“No, I doubt that,” Wilson says, noting he’s still undecided but doesn’t think he’s a Huntsman voter.
Some of the lack of enthusiasm about the candidate can be explained by digging into surveys of voters here.
Andy Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire and head of its Survey Center, says Huntsman made a strategic error by trying to target independents, which make up a big block of voters in the state but still may align with Democrats or Republicans.
Moreover, Smith adds, “Huntsman came here and I think misunderstood that while Republicans in New Hampshire aren’t socially conservative, they’re still Republicans.”
Voters here, Smith says, saw Huntsman as someone who worked for President Barack Obama — Huntsman was the U.S. ambassador to China — and who distanced himself from rival conservative candidates enough that only Democratic-leaning independents looked his way. Those folks aren’t likely to turn out Tuesday.
“He’s put himself in a box where he’s getting support from the wrong kind of people,” Smith said.
Pushing forward • When Huntsman first ran for governor in Utah, he faced seven other Republican contenders in a convention fight and emerged to a primary against former House Speaker Nolan Karras. Huntsman took 66 percent of that vote.
Four years later, Huntsman walked to a second term with nearly 78 percent of the vote, and as Huntsman notes on the presidential campaign trail, earned more Democratic votes than his Democratic opponent.
New Hampshire has been a different animal for the candidate who is yet to lose a political race.
Huntsman stresses to voters here that he’s going to tell them straight up what he can do, and that he’ll do it. He’s posted more specific policy papers than any other candidate, a selling point for some.
“I like him the best,” says Ann Turbyne of Hookset, who says she remains an independent voter so she can vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries. “If you’re in New England, you want some facts. We don’t just want to hear what you think we want to hear.”
Stephen Duprey, the Republican National committeeman for the state, says Huntsman has worked very hard in the state at doing just that and has a good professional team that has attracted support from those who previously backed Sen. John McCain’s campaign in the Granite State.
“He hasn’t seemed to have his moment in the sun, and to be frank, I don’t understand why,” Duprey says. “This should be a good state for him, and he has a message that should resonate in a fiscally conservative state like New Hampshire, where social conservatives are not so prominent.”
Huntsman, trailing in the polls for weeks, could be seeing a last-minute surge with new polls showing him slowly climbing in the polls to third place on the eve of the debate.
Campaign strategist John Weaver said Saturday that Huntsman will be on the ground in Charleston, S.C., on Wednesday ready to fight for South Carolina votes.
And in an internal memo obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, Weaver argued that the race will come down to “Romney and an electable alternative to Mitt Romney” and that rival will either be Huntsman or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
“But it will not be decided until late spring, despite the wishes of Washington insiders,” Weaver wrote.
Outlining the path forward, Weaver said the New Hampshire primary will “trigger a critical burst of momentum” for Huntsman in South Carolina and Florida.
“He has not yet been well-defined in the state and his consistent conservative record will play well – particularly juxtaposed against Romney’s record of flip-flops and abandonment of the South Carolina primary in 2008,” Weaver said.
But before Huntsman heads south, he has to win over a good chunk of of New Hampshire voters, and he’s not letting up on the campaign trail.
On a recent snowy night, Huntsman holds a town hall in the Newport, an old mill town near the Vermont border. The gym is packed.
“I just have a request for you,” Huntsman says. “I want your vote. I learned when I ran for governor, if I don’t ask for your vote, I’m never going to get it.”
Some 90 minutes later, he’s won over some voters and is swarmed by a crowd of those who want to shake his hand.
Buddy Barnett is one.
“I’m pretty impressed,” Barnett says. “He’s honest, sincere, tells it like it is, warts and all, like it or not.”
Barnett is puzzled, too, that Huntsman isn’t ahead in New Hampshire.
“I’m having a hard time fathoming that given that all the other candidates have had their day in the sun, and most of them didn’t deserve it,” says Barnett, a registered Republican. “So I can’t understand why this guy hasn’t caught on long before now. I can’t understand why he’s not the front-runner.”
Barnett is a die-hard Huntsman voter. But he won’t be casting a ballot for him on Tuesday.
He lives in Vermont.