HENNIKER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - About 90 minutes before Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman arrived at Mary’s Bakery and Cafe on Monday, the three young volunteers who were his advance team struggled to get a campaign sign into the frozen ground.
One suggested they use a blow-torch, another went for hot water. When time ran out, they propped the sign up in a flower pot to greet him.
It was a symbolic scene for the struggling campaign of the former governor of Utah and U.S. ambassador to China: a good candidate on paper who has hardly managed to break ground in a crowded field.
Huntsman has lavished nearly all his time and resources on New Hampshire, but a day before its first-in-the-nation primary,
it looked like the Granite State may end up being the site of his one and only stand. For 2012 at least.
He carries the baggage - or diplomatic pouch - of being President Barack Obama’s man in China, a coveted job except for Republicans who think he conspired with the enemy in the White House. He speaks fluent Chinese, a plus for a diplomat in Asia but not so much when he spoke it on stage at a debate last weekend to the bemusement of millions.
He criticizes the partisan nature of his party, a negative for Republicans who want to battle hard with Democrats. He may just be too moderate for his party at this point in time.
Huntsman’s campaign may be warming up ever so slightly in New Hampshire as his poll numbers rise before Tuesday’s vote.
“Huntsman is moving in New Hampshire, but he’s nearly out of time,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.
“He must succeed in next 24 hours in accomplishing something he’s failed to do throughout his campaign: convince Republican partisans he should be their nominee. He can’t survive on Democrats and independents alone.”
The 51-year-old scion of a wealthy industrialist family breaks with the more conservative elements of his party on issues like climate change and gay rights and has struggled to find his place in the Republican field. Ironically, many top Democrats had considered him the biggest threat to Obama’s re-election.
Huntsman has watched as rivals Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Rick Perry, Newt Gingrich and now Rick Santorum have all spent their time as the candidate of the week to challenge front-runner Mitt Romney.
Huntsman has not had his time at the top, or even close to the top, though he could pull off an upset with a second-place finish on Tuesday. He is running in the teens in polls, behind the libertarian with the bedrock support base Ron Paul and way behind Romney, who was governor right next door in Massachusetts.
After Huntsman resigned his post in the Obama administration in late April, he appeared to be on a path to challenge Romney, a fellow Mormon, for front-runner status. But he stumbled badly, with his campaign under the direction of John Weaver, the man who billed 2008 runner-up John McCain as a maverick.
In an effort to show his appeal to independents, Huntsman came out of the gate emphasizing where he differed with his opponents on issues of climate change, gay rights and the war in Afghanistan. He never recovered with the conservatives of Iowa, so he made New Hampshire, with its heavy concentration of independents and moderates, his big play.
Weaver hinted on Monday, in Concord, New Hampshire, that there were things he would do differently, but he seemed happy to be surging in the last days of the primary campaign.
“All campaigns make mistakes,” Weaver said. “It’s the campaign that makes the fewest mistakes that win.”
‘I‘M THE UNDERDOG’
Huntsman has done more than 170 events in New Hampshire since getting into the race in 2011, but his poll numbers were stuck in the single digits until the Iowa caucuses were over.
Like former Democratic presidential candidates Senator Joe Lieberman and former NATO General Wesley Clark before him, Huntsman learned the hard way that when the national focus is on Iowa, there is little a candidate can do to get attention in New Hampshire.
When the media wave rolled out of Iowa, its momentum was carrying Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, into New Hampshire.
Since then, Huntsman has been climbing steadily but incrementally. He gets looks from voters who said they are “still with Obama,” but curious about Huntsman.
Ron Patterson, an Obama supporter from Hillsborough, came to see Huntsman on Monday. For him, Huntsman is the candidate that could scare Obama, but he shakes his head when asked why that view doesn’t seem to be shared by Republican voters.
“I don’t get it,” Patterson said. “I mean, I really don’t get it.”
From the beginning, Huntsman wryly called himself the candidate of the margin of error. It turned out his self-deprecation was actually right on the money.
“I‘m an underdog candidate,” Huntsman told the crowd at Mary‘s. “That means we’ve got to move up, we’ve got to surge.”
Surge or no surge, Huntsman and his aides already have their plane tickets to South Carolina, site of the next primary on January 21.
When reminded that Representative Michelle Bachmann, who withdrew from the race last week, had also purchased plane tickets to South Carolina, Weaver joked: “Maybe we have hers.”
Editing by Mary Milliken and Doina Chiacu