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Huntsman, Romney in Nevada vs. N.H. tug of war

Published October 13, 2011 11:54 pm

Politics • Utah's former governor says he will boycott Silver State to focus on the Granite one.
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Washington • Jon Huntsman would be expected to do well in the Nevada presidential caucuses. After all, he was a two-term governor of neighboring Utah and shares his LDS faith with a sizable number of Silver Staters.

But Huntsman and his struggling White House campaign have been barely a blip in Nevada polls while fellow Mormon Mitt Romney, who had already secured a head start from his 2008 bid, is far ahead with Republican voters.

On Thursday, Huntsman announced he would boycott the Nevada contest, arguing he wouldn't compete unless the state moved its caucus date back to accommodate New Hampshire's planned first-in-the-nation primary.

It's a bet, observers say, to help boost Huntsman's standing in New Hampshire, where he is wagering all of his White House hopes. And an easy bet at that because he has no on-the-ground operation in Nevada nor much chance at the moment of winning any GOP delegates.

"I don't think it's a bad strategy," said Jamie Burnett, a partner at the New Hampshire-based Profile Strategy Group. "It's probably something he needs to do. He's put it all on New Hampshire, mostly because he hasn't probably raised the resources he needs to compete anywhere else."

Huntsman campaign manager Matt David said the former Utah governor's presidential effort wants to preserve New Hampshire's coveted first-in-the-nation status and would boycott Nevada as long as "the state continues to jeopardize New Hampshire's primary date."

"We call on the other campaigns to join us," David said, "especially Governor Romney's campaign, given their involvement in moving Nevada's date forward."

The 2012 primary calendar has been in flux in recent weeks after Florida announced it would hold its primary on Jan. 31, prompting South Carolina to plant its runoff on Jan. 21. Nevada picked Jan. 14 and Iowa plans on holding its caucuses Jan. 3.

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who by law must set his state's primary one week before another "similar contest," said he may be forced to move the Granite State's balloting, which has yet to be determined, to Dec. 6 or Dec. 13.

Romney's campaign will neither confirm nor deny that it was involved in urging Nevada to move up its caucus date, though such a move could be a boon to his campaign, given his lead in the polls.

"Governor Romney is firmly committed to preserving New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary and the critical role it plays in selecting our Republican nominee," said campaign spokesman Ryan Williams, who noted his boss is also competing in every other nomination contest — whenever they are scheduled.

The allegation that Romney is behind Nevada nudging up its primary hasn't permeated much into New Hampshire, said Burnett, though he cautions all candidates should ensure the state is first up.

"Regardless of all of that," Burnett said, "Romney, [Texas Gov. Rick] Perry and everybody who is campaigning here should be supportive of the primary."

Huntsman recently moved his campaign headquarters from Orlando, Fla., to Manchester, N.H., and shifted and laid off staff to mobilize a leaner machine for the Granite State effort.

But Huntsman's boycott of the Nevada caucus would not go over well in a state that is expected to be a battleground in the general election.

Robert Uithoven, a Nevada Republican strategist who is unaffiliated this cycle, called Huntsman's move "childish and desperate," and said trying to make Nevada the enemy of New Hampshire is irresponsible and could make Huntsman the enemy in the end.

"It's a strange move for Huntsman," Uithoven said. "It's a pretty desperate move for Huntsman to pick a fight with Nevada to gain points in New Hampshire."

So far, Huntsman has visited the Silver State once since announcing his bid, and Uithoven saidhe should not be invited to Tuesday's CNN debate in Las Vegas.

"If he has no interest in competing in Nevada," the strategist said, "we shouldn't allow him into the state."

Huntsman wasn't alone in his boycott call Thursday. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said he, too, wouldn't compete there.

"To be clear, I will not campaign in Nevada nor participate in the Nevada caucus if it doesn't move its primary date," he said.

tburr@sltrib.com

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