Durham, N.H. • Officially, Jon Huntsman Jr. says he's still "kicking the tires" and won't make a decision until next month on whether he's going to run for president.
But Huntsman, who calls his first campaign trip to the state "exhilarating," sounds like he's going all-in on the race.
"Do we want to run for the presidency, the pain and anguish and challenges?" Huntsman said during his final living room meeting of the trip. "Your logical side of the brain says, 'No sane person would want to do that.' Meanwhile, your patriotic side of your brain says, you love this country. This country is at a serious inflection point. â¦ Do you want to be sidelined in this time of change or do you want to be in the game?"
Back from Beijing for just three weeks where he served as U.S. ambassador to China Huntsman crisscrossed New Hampshire over five days with a slew of national media in tow.
At each stop he polished and refined his stump speech, built around revitalizing the U.S. economy to compete with the surging Chinese juggernaut and calling for a civil tone in national debates. He avoided direct criticism of the other candidates but warned that America is in a funk and presented himself as a candidate who could control spending, "refire" the engines of innovation and help avoid a "lost decade" that would result from the status quo.
He focused on his record in Utah as a tax-cutter, explained his nomination by President Barack Obama to be ambassador as service to his country and tiptoed around questions about climate change.
Huntsman's chief political strategist, John Weaver, said that "for a maiden voyage" the trip exceeded every expectation.
"I can't imagine not moving forward," said Weaver. "I would say it's more 'when' than 'if' [Huntsman announces]. We haven't finished our due diligence, but if this first trip is any indication of how we believe his message will be received, then we'll be going forward real soon."
Huntsman said he would sit down with his family sometime in June and make a decision whether to run. If he gives the green light, Weaver said plans have already been made for the next phase of the campaign.
If he gets in, however, Huntsman faces the challenge of carving out a niche for himself in the GOP field, said Jamie Burnett, a New Hampshire political consultant who was Romney's political director in 2008.
"I see a difficult path to victory for him right now because I want to see what's different about him," said Burnett. "He's not going to out-businessman Mitt Romney. He's not going to out-raise or out-spend Mitt Romney. â¦ He's not going to out-conservative Michelle Bachmann or Rick Santorum. So what makes him unique and different from the other guys?"
In the meantime, the quasi-campaign is rolling forward with a rigorous schedule.
After a courtesy call to former President George H.W. Bush at his home in Kennebunkport, Maine, on Monday afternoon where Huntsman said he expected he would discuss China with the former president, who was a U.S. envoy to the country the campaign heads to California and Nevada to meet with potential donors.
The family will be in Utah next weekend attending the graduation of his son, Will, from Judge Memorial High School, the unveiling of his gubernatorial portrait at the Utah Capitol and a motorcycle race.
Then, each of the following two weekends, he will be back in New Hampshire for multiday, retail-level campaigning. The first visit will include the Belknap County Republican Party boat cruise, with several other contenders aboard, and the following week he will attend Laconia Motorcycle Week.
"It's been exhilarating," Huntsman said at the end of his first New Hampshire foray.
"For us it was: Can we survive New Hampshire? And I think you know that probably in the first day or two, either you're run out of the state, you're run out of people's homes or you can stand tall at the end of the day," he said. "We're leaving New Hampshire with a sense that we have a lot of new friends, we made the rounds in the state â¦ we worked very, very hard, but we are heartened by what we were able to do."
Romney lead slipping
A new poll by the University of New Hampshire for CNN and a New Hampshire TV station found that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney holds a commanding lead among the GOP field with 32 percent support although his backing has steadily slipped in recent months.
Huntsman is in the midst of a scrum of candidates who are polling at 4 percent one of seven candidates getting between 4 percent and 6 percent support. The survey was conducted May 17-22, with the latter half overlapping Huntsman's visit.
The Mormon factor
It's been the topic of discussion in his home state of Utah, but former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. says his faith won't be an issue if he decides to run for president.
"I don't think it matters at all," Huntsman said while campaigning in New Hampshire this weekend. "People want to know your heart."
Huntsman said that it is "such a pivotal moment in our nation's history" that people care more about what candidates are going to do to control debt and foster economic growth than their religious leanings.
TIME magazine reported last week that, asked if he was a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Huntsman responded that it is "tough to define."
In an interview on "Good Morning America" on Friday, the former governor said that he believes in God, is a good Christian and is "very proud of my Mormon heritage."
"I am Mormon," he said. "Today, there are 13 million Mormons. It's a very diverse and heterogeneous cross-section of people. And you're going to find a lot of different attitudes and a lot of different opinions in that 13 million."
Except for questions from reporters, the issue of Huntsman's religion was not raised during his weekend swing through New Hampshire.