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With campaign at stake, Huntsman counting on surge

Former Utah governor says he feels “a little momentum.”

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"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.

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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.

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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.

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