Exeter, N.H. • Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman barnstormed New Hampshire on the eve of the Republican presidential primary and vowed to exceed expectations as he rode a small bump in the polls, while rival Mitt Romney, the odds-on favorite to win here, started looking forward to facing President Barack Obama.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, hopes to rack up another win on top of his Iowa victory and kept his target squarely on the White House’s current occupant.
“I don’t know how we’d survive four more years of Barack Obama,” Romney told a group of business leaders during one of several stops across the state Monday. “Sometimes I don’t think he likes you very much. I love you. I love what you do.”
Huntsman, too, found big crowds of supporters — and news media — during a whirlwind tour of the state where he’s staked his White House hopes.
“Can you feel a little momentum in the air?” Huntsman said at a rally at the Exeter Town Hall, where he kicked off his campaign here last year. “Every stop along the way [Monday] I heard the same thing: ‘Something is happening out there.’ I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow night, but I do know this: We’re going to surprise a whole lot of people.”
A surprise for Huntsman likely won’t be a win, however, with most polls showing him in third place behind front-runner Romney and Rep. Ron Paul. Huntsman has previously said that a third-place showing, though, is still a ticket out of New Hampshire and into South Carolina, which holds the next primary contest Jan. 21.
Both Huntsman and Romney have planned events in South Carolina on Wednesday.
The immediate challenge for both candidates — as well as opponents Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Paul — was to energize voters for the final push.
Romney, though, had a bit of cleanup to do in his final hours of campaigning after saying at an event that, “I like being able to fire people who provide services to me.”
Romney made the comment in reference to how consumers should be able to pick and choose their own health insurance coverage and not be stuck with what their employer offers, but rival Republicans and Democrats quickly seized on it.
Huntsman chimed in with a dig at his opponent.
“It may be that he’s slightly out of touch with the economic reality playing out in America right now, and that’s a dangerous place for someone to be,” the candidate said at one stop.
Romney, who wasn’t planning to take questions from the news media this week, called a quick news conference to explain the comment.
“Things can always be taken out of context, and I understand that’s what the Obama people will do, but as you know I was speaking about the insurance companies and people should be able to choose what insurance companies they want and not have Obamacare do that for them,” Romney told reporters.
The comment, though, was unlikely to faze too many voters here with polls opening only hours later. Many have already made up their minds.
Romney, whose campaign signs sprout from nearly every roadside in the state, finished second in New Hampshire four years ago but voters here were coalescing around his second bid.
“I was really struck by the fact that he thinks like an executive, thinks like a leader and he has the best interest of the people in mind,” said voter Kevin Cunningham.
Romney even earned the backing of a Democrat who said while he can’t vote in the Republican primary, he’s going to write in Romney on his ballot.
“He has my support all the way,” said Tom Monahan of Nashua. “I’m a Democrat that’s definitely voting Republican, and Mitt is the best of them.”
Huntsman had his backers, too.
Former New Hampshire Republican Chairman Fergus Cullen said he made his mind up Sunday night to go with the former Utah governor.
“I like that he’s a positive person,” Cullen said. “I like that he’s not angry, and that’s important.”
Kevin and Carrie Finke of Bedford also planned to check Huntsman’s name.
“He’s trying to restore trust in the United States government, which I think has been lost not only by the people in the U.S., but worldwide and that seems like a main focus for him and I would like to see that.”
And in the only-in-New Hampshire file, Dover resident Bill Higgins said he was going to back Huntsman in the primary because his goat, Izaac, took a fond liking to him. The goat bit Huntsman’s kneecap during a previous visit to his hometown.
“Since he nipped his knee, Huntsman has started to come up in the polls,” Higgins said. “He’s a very down-to-earth person, he’s a straight-talker.”
Higgins brought Izaac, draped with a Huntsman shirt, to two Huntsman events on Monday.