DEERFIELD, New Hampshire (Reuters) - They are handsome, wealthy and Mormon. They are former governors - and distant cousins - who are vying to become the Republican nominee for president this year.
In this campaign, however, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Romney, widely viewed as the favorite to win the Republican nomination, expects to do well in the Iowa caucuses on Tuesday and then win the January 10 primary in New Hampshire, where he leads in the polls. Huntsman, by contrast, skipped Iowa and has staked his campaign on a solid finish in New Hampshire.
Now, in an effort to invigorate his campaign, Huntsman has begun criticizing Romney, even as polls have shown that the rivalry some had forecast between the pair in New Hampshire has not materialized.
Huntsman’s move comes at a time when Romney has received more than 40 percent support in recent New Hampshire polls, while Huntsman is running third with about 10 percent, well behind Texas Congressman Ron Paul.
During a town hall meeting on Sunday in Franklin, New Hampshire, Huntsman, a former diplomat who does not readily engage in hand-to-hand political combat, tried to portray Romney as the establishment’s choice as Republican nominee.
“He’s a good guy,” Huntsman said. “I respect him, but we’re two different people.
“How can you bring change to Congress and Capitol Hill when you got half of Congress supporting you?” Huntsman asked, referring to the massive fund-raising and organizational advantages Romney enjoys over his Republican foes. “No way, no how. How can you fix the banks on Wall Street if you’re the number-one recipient of contributions from Wall Street?”
Huntsman’s own campaign is so cash-strapped that he has made an emergency appeal for funds to buy television airtime before the primary.
An independent, pro-Huntsman political action committee has come out with an advertisement attacking Romney. The Our Destiny PAC is spending $300,000 on broadcast and cable airtime in New Hampshire to run through January 10, according to a media strategist for the organization.
The spots portray Romney, who often is accused of changing his positions on a range of issues, as a “chameleon.”
Although Huntsman is vying with former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich for third place in New Hampshire, the ads calls Huntsman and Romney the only “serious candidates” for the Republican nomination. Then it accuses Romney of being “willing to say anything, be anything.”
The tussle on the airwaves could be the only time the Huntsman-Romney rivalry will be played out in the 2012 Republican race.
Many political observers expect Huntsman to drop out of the race soon, barring the New Hampshire miracle he has predicted.
From the start, though, the similarities between the candidates have been intriguing as they seek to outdo their highly successful fathers.
George Romney, father of Mitt, rose from obscurity to run an automobile company, become governor of Michigan, work for former
President Richard Nixon, and run for president himself in 1968.
Huntsman’s father, Jon Huntsman Sr., helped develop the “clam shell” packaging for McDonald’s Big Mac burgers, founded a large chemical company that bears his name, and also worked for Nixon.
Huntsman Sr. later was the Utah chairman of presidential campaigns by Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and ran for governor of Utah in 1988.
Many are curious whether the billionaire industrialist is bankrolling the Our Destiny group to promote his oldest son’s ambitions. An employee of Huntsman Corp. established the group.
Reports documenting contributions to the group supporting Huntsman, and those backing other presidential candidates, won’t be made public until later this month.
The parallels between the two candidates run as thick as blood.
“Both Romney and Huntsman descend from Parley P. Pratt, one of the most storied early Mormon leaders,” said Joanna Brooks, a Mormon scholar who posts on Twitter as @askmormongirl.
“Both have family and personal connections to the institutional hierarchy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And both enjoy an unusual degree of access to high-ranking church leaders,” she said.
Both were raised in devout families. Romney has remained observant; he once was a lay pastor in the Mormon church near his home in Belmont, Massachusetts. Huntsman has shown a bit more latitude in his faith choices, Brooks said.
Hours before Iowa’s caucuses Tuesday, Huntsman will hold his 150th campaign event in New Hampshire, where his grassroots strategy over the past seven months has taken him from zero percent in the polls and zero name recognition to a standing of 9 to 13 percent in recent surveys.
Huntsman has maintained a positive message of being a steady conservative with a strong fiscal record during two terms as governor of Utah, and whose economic plan has been praised by the Wall Street Journal.
He also heavily touts his foreign policy expertise gleaned from his stints as ambassador in China and Singapore, as U.S. deputy trade representative and working in four presidential administrations.
Instead of targeting Huntsman, who is polling at about 2 percent nationally, or other rivals, Romney largely has focused his campaign speeches on President Barack Obama. A well-funded independent group backing Romney, however, has spent millions of dollars in ads aimed largely at attacking Gingrich.
Romney’s campaign did not respond when Huntsman received a few New Hampshire newspaper endorsements recently, including that of the Concord Monitor in the state capital.
Even Romney’s sons, who last week campaigned for their father in New Hampshire, have not been interested in engaging in a light-hearted Twitter exchange with Huntsman’s three older daughters, Liddy, Abby and Mary Anne Huntsman, who tweet under the handle “Jon2012girls” and have been credited with raising Huntsman’s profile among younger voters.
“We’re just focused on my dad and trying to get my dad elected,” said Tagg Romney, 41, the oldest of Romney five sons.
Aggressive fund-raising has been a hallmark of Romney’s campaign; the fourth-quarter haul for Romney could be close to $20 million.
By contrast, Huntsman appealed on Friday to his supporters via Facebook for a quick $100,000 infusion to help buy airtime in New Hampshire before the primary. So far that effort has raised about $53,000, and Huntsman on Monday pledged to match donations made through midnight Wednesday, in an effort to get on the air more.
“We’re still standing,” said Huntsman when asked about his campaign’s fund-raising.
“As you perform the money will then follow. I think history would prove that,” he said, adding an apparent hopeful prediction for his bid: “You have shoestring campaigns that catch fire, they do well in New Hampshire, that becomes a major fundraising opportunity for them and they keep going forward.”
Additional reporting by Jason McLure; Editing by David Lindsey and Philip Barbara