KEENE, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Jon Huntsman, little known outside his home state of Utah, is starting his bold play for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination by courting voters in the key state of New Hampshire.
The former governor of Utah recently resigned as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China and has returned to potentially give his former boss headaches at the polls.
Some political insiders think the photogenic Huntsman is a tonic the Republican Party, which is struggling to find a strong candidate to run against Obama, badly needs for 2012.
But can a little-known ex-governor, who is a Mormon and whose last job was working for a Democratic president, gain any traction?
A recent look by the University of New Hampshire’s survey center showed Huntsman favored by only 1 percent of voters in the state, which has an early February primary that can help a candidate build momentum. Seventy-one percent of those polled had never heard of him.
In Hanover, New Hampshire, Thursday, Huntsman, 51, was realistic about his current obscurity, calling himself “the quintessential margin of error potential candidate,” but said he was “humbled” by the prospect of running for president. He is likely to make a decision in June on whether to push ahead with a bid or not.
Dressed in an open-necked shirt, navy blazer and gray slacks, Huntsman looked relaxed as he campaigned. He was to make a dozen public appearances in New Hampshire in five days -- from house parties to gun shops -- and was to meet with key state Republican leaders as well.
As a fiscally conservative governor, Huntsman has been on the political insiders’ radar for years. In 2007 he signed the largest tax cut in Utah and left office in August 2009 with sky-high approval ratings.
During his time as governor, Utah was named the best managed state by the Pew Center on the States.
Some pundits maintain that Obama chose Huntsman as ambassador to put a potentially tough opponent half-way across the globe. Huntsman resigned the ambassadorship after a little more than two years and has started to crank up a campaign apparatus.
He has not formally announced a run for the Republican nomination but has hired several key advisors and started a fund-raising apparatus, the Horizon PAC.
Huntsman urged potential supporters to look at his record as governor.
“We came up with a lot of innovation,” he said. “Look at that before you look at various tags and labels.”
Most New Hampshire voters still are assessing potential candidates. Many said they find Huntsman impressive but perhaps too much the politician.
“I asked him who he was and I think I got a very shallow response ... he seemed to be saying everything that people wanted to hear,” George Kidd, 73, a retired college professor, said after a Huntsman house party in Hancock.
In Keene, New Hampshire, Huntsman said he was attempting to bring a message of renewal to the United States. He compared a “depressed” mood in the nation to “giddiness” about the future that he saw among many Chinese.
“It’s a pretty simple discussion -- whether or not this country is ready for the 21st century,” Huntsman said.
That resonated with Derek Summerville, 22, a senior at Dartmouth College who voted for Obama in 2008 but considers himself independent. “Huntsman seems to be pursuing pragmatic, not partisan, solutions,” he said.
Huntsman’s low name recognition is only one of his liabilities with potential Republican primary voters.
“The mystique of Huntsman is that people don’t really know anything about him,” said Democratic strategist John Anzalone of Anzalone-Liszt Research in Montgomery, Alabama.
Huntsman, like presumed Republican front-runner Mitt Romney, is a Mormon, which is often seen as a negative in some of the conservative Southern U.S. states.
The candidate’s fiscal conservatism also contrasts with a more liberal record on social issues, including long-standing support of civil unions for gays and lesbians.
And then there’s that relationship with Obama, who Huntsman once praised as a “remarkable leader” in a handwritten letter.
Huntsman also worked for three Republican presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. But will the Obama link be a deal-breaker for primary voters?
Ralph Larson, 75, of Hebron, New Hampshire, said he was not bothered by Huntsman having worked in China for Obama but disagreed with the candidate’s support of civil unions.
“You can’t find someone who has every position you like,” Larson said.
Editing by Bill Trott