Huntsman following McCain playbook
Hooksett, N.H. • On the door of Riley's Gun Shop, where former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. visited Saturday, there is a sticker that reads: "Don't blame me. I voted for John McCain."
Farther down the road, at Robie's Country Store, the walls are adorned with political memorabilia common in the early presidential proving ground, and Huntsman took time to point out to his 12-year-old daughter, Gracie Mei, a picture of a young McCain in his Navy flight suit.
Everywhere Huntsman has traveled this week, in fact, the McCain presence is there, from the New Hampshirites who hosted Huntsman in their living rooms, to the staff that shadowed him, to the tactics he appears poised to use.
"You feel the sense that you are in the footsteps of a great man and a great national hero," Huntsman said of the similarities between McCain's two New Hampshire campaigns and his own. "He built up a great network of loyal supporters. Some of whom we have met, some of whom we brought to the campaign."
Bobbie Coffin, who welcomed about 40 friends and nearly that many reporters to her home Friday to meet Huntsman, said she knew almost nothing about the former governor but agreed to do it because she was asked by people who worked for McCain, whom she and her husband backed in 2000 and 2008.
"I like moderate Republicans," Coffin said as friends and reporters cleared out of her Hancock, N.H., home on Friday. Huntsman will be the only candidate she is hosting, she said.
Nancy Merrill, who was the New Hampshire co-chairwoman of McCain's 2008 bid, hosted Huntsman's first event Thursday; Juliana Bergeron, a prominent McCain backer, held an event Friday in her home; and Huntsman has other events scheduled with other McCain backers later.
It is not a bad model to follow. In 2000, McCain campaigned hard in New Hampshire and trounced the better-funded and favored George W. Bush, and, in 2008, beat Mitt Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts who has a home in New Hampshire.
The Granite State is one with a record of backing moderate GOP candidates, those of Huntsman's stripe.
"You have to do well early somewhere," said John Weaver, Huntsman's chief strategist and a former McCain adviser. "This state is ideally suited to [Huntsman's] record and philosophy and style, so we're going to have a big footprint in this state."
Huntsman will be back in New Hampshire in two weeks with another solid bloc of appearances, events and the kind of retail politicking that propelled McCain to his wins.
If Huntsman indeed skips Iowa as McCain did and Huntsman appears likely to do then New Hampshire may be the ideal place to plant the flag.
Michael Dennehy, who was McCain's New Hampshire strategist in 2000 and national political director for part of the 2008 campaign, is not aboard the potential Huntsman bid. Dennehy said in a recent interview that there is potential for Huntsman to do well in this home to the nation's first primary.
The field of conservative candidates is crowded, and if they split the conservative vote, Huntsman could draw, say, 15 percent of the moderates and post a strong showing in New Hampshire, he said.
"It's one of those situations where all the stars have to align," he said.
Potentially helping the case is the fact that President Barack Obama is not expected to have a contest for the Democratic nomination and New Hampshire has open primaries, enabling those residents to vote in the GOP contest.
Huntsman is not the only potential candidate trying to build upon the remnants of the campaign structure McCain created in two elections.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who like Huntsman served as a surrogate for McCain in 2008, has also scooped up pieces of that campaign.
But Weaver said that, whatever the similarities, if Huntsman does get into the presidential scrum, the campaign will be his.
"[We have] a lot of friends and allies who know how to do this, so it's not quite like starting off from scratch, but every campaign reflects the candidate, so while things look familiar, the campaign is going to look like him," said Weaver. "But mechanically, stylistically, he's a very accessible person â¦ that's not going to change. That style fits the way New Hampshire people like to basically interview their candidates."
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