Fading Huntsman gambles all in New Hampshire

DOVER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - Far from the glamorous receptions he once hosted as an ambassador, Jon Huntsman is braving hungry goats and hard-bitten voters in New Hampshire in a risky go-for-broke strategy that will decide the fate of his bid for the White House.

Bill Higgins watches his goat Izak chew on a campaign sign outside a town hall meeting campaign stop by Republican presidential candidate and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman in Dover, New Hampshire October 30, 2011. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Huntsman has pinned almost all his hopes for the Republican presidential nomination on finishing first or second in the state’s January 10 primary.

The former U.S. envoy to China, who is last in many national polls among major candidates, is gambling that he can pull off an upset like John McCain’s in the 2008 election when the Arizona senator came back from the dead.

Huntsman is crisscrossing New Hampshire in a black rented Chevy SUV, trying to drum up support at town hall meetings attended sometimes by as few as 30 people.

“I’ve heard that in your state you have to shake someone’s hand 15 times before they will consider voting for you,” he joked at a meeting in Laconia. “Some of you are getting up to handshake No. 10.”

Outside an event in Dover, the candidate had to contend with Izak, an 18-month-old white goat that chewed his campaign sign and then nibbled at the knee of the laughing Huntsman.

As a moderate Republican who served President Barack Obama’s administration as a diplomat, Huntsman seems out of step with his party’s shift to the right in recent years.

The Republicans’ other center-right hopeful, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, is way ahead of Huntsman in fundraising and media attention. That leaves Huntsman trailing in polls of Republicans, pulling in between 1 and 2 percent nationally.

In New Hampshire his peak so far was 10 percent in a Suffolk University/WHDH survey in September.

Struggling elsewhere, Huntsman’s campaign chose to focus on the Granite State, which often chooses more liberal Republicans, in the hope that a good result here can build momentum for primaries in Florida and South Carolina.

Huntsman has held almost 100 public events in New Hampshire to date and plans 100 more before election day, dwarfing the amount of time he has spent in other key voting states.

He has all but ignored Iowa, where the first voting of the election season takes place on January 3, and pulled his campaign headquarters and much of his staff out of Florida to base them in Manchester, New Hampshire.

No other candidate spent as much time in the New England state in October as Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, hoping to build a head of steam by January.

“Early in the new year, people are going to take note of the candidates,” he told Reuters. “When the calendar ticks to 2012, people will really start to focus.”


Huntsman’s advisors like to draw parallels with McCain’s New Hampshire victory.

Another struggling candidate saved by New Hampshire was Bill Clinton, whose surprisingly strong runner-up finish in the Democratic primary in 1992 helped vault him to the party’s nomination and two terms in the White House.

Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center in Durham, said Huntsman needs to do more than hold town hall meetings if he wants to replicate McCain’s success.

“I’m not convinced Huntsman is serious,” Smith said. “You have to do some broadcast campaigning. Television time is cheap here.”

In 2008 the McCain campaign made its first New Hampshire TV ad purchase in early October with 118 thirty-second spots. McCain, who was already well known in the state after winning the 2000 Republican primary there, continued to advertise heavily.

But ad buys might be tough for Huntsman’s campaign, which was $890,000 in debt at the end of the third quarter.

Huntsman, whose billionaire father founded the chemical company Huntsman Corporation, has contributed more than $2 million of his own money so far. In Laconia late last month he did not rule out making more loans to keep the campaign going.

New Hampshire’s notoriously independent-minded voters give silver-haired Huntsman, 51, a fair hearing, and often praise his foreign policy experience. But he still trails Romney and others in the polls in New Hampshire despite his high profile in the state.

“It makes you aware of him but I haven’t really taken that close a look,” said Karen Mongeon, 48, after meeting Huntsman for a second time at a New England Patriots game day party in Newmarket.

Diane Day, 50, a school teacher from Dover, said she had a hard time trying to persuade friends to come to the town hall meeting with her because many of them had no sense of who Huntsman is. “I think he’s got a great message,” said Day, adding that she doesn’t know yet who she will support.

Huntsman’s candidacy initially received positive media attention, especially amid buzz that the Chinese-speaking diplomat was the Obama administration’s most feared opponent in 2012.

In May, his first swing through New Hampshire won national media coverage. But when Huntsman formally launched his campaign at a New Jersey event in June, it was ridiculed for its missteps. The candidate’s first name was misspelled “John” on media badges, a blunder later repeated in some campaign mailings.

He has, however, won a small victory in New Hampshire by taking the state’s side in a fight with Nevada over which would holder the earlier primary vote.

Huntsman boycotted a candidate’s debate in Las Vegas last month and held a town hall meeting in Manchester in protest.

Since then, Nevada backed down and New Hampshire ended a threat to hold its primary in December -- giving the candidate a few more precious weeks to campaign.

“At the end of the day, when you dismiss the artificiality of politics and the temporary headlines, you’re left with a candidate, and a message,” he said. “And either that combination is able to penetrate the soul of the voter, or not.”

Editing by Bill Trott