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Huntsman presses flesh, lays out agenda during N.H. visit

Seeks to draw contrasts with Obama, Romney

Jon Huntsman talked with guests at a house party in Hancock, N.H., yesterday. The former ambassador spoke about health care, federal spending, and Libya during the day. Jon Huntsman talked with guests at a house party in Hancock, N.H., yesterday. The former ambassador spoke about health care, federal spending, and Libya during the day. (Jim Cole/Associated Press)
By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / May 21, 2011

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CONCORD, N.H. — The late-afternoon setting was a smoke-filled veterans’ hall, the questions centered on the US role in Libya and the volunteer draft, and the would-be presidential candidate, little-known Jon M. Huntsman Jr., must have felt he was a world away from where he started the day yesterday — shuttling between tony living room parlors and taking on the pocket-book topics of health care and federal spending.

He wasn’t. The second day of Huntsman’s five-day coming out party began and ended in the crucial primary state of New Hampshire. As a former governor and recent ambassador, Huntsman could be particularly suited to take on such a gamut of questions. But for now, he worked mainly to adjust to the life of a potential candidate in a state known for its retail politics and engaged voters.

Before addressing the small group of Pepsi- and beer-sipping veterans in the largely empty Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1631, Huntsman donned a denim jacket. As a Diana Ross song played in the background, post commander Rick Angwin fondly remembered how Senator John McCain had packed the hall in his run for the presidency in 2008.

“I want to hear what he’s got to say,’’ Angwin said of Huntsman, who is a prospective GOP candidate for president in 2012 but who has already enlisted the help of several key advisers from McCain’s run. “He’s the new kid on the block for me.’’

It did not take long for Huntsman to starkly draw a difference between himself and his former employer, President Obama. The president’s decision to spearhead the initial attacks on Libya was wrong-headed, he said, an example of military overreach that the country cannot afford.

“At the end of the day you’ve got to pick and choose very carefully about what constitutes your core national security interests,’’ said Huntsman. “We can’t be everywhere — we just can’t afford to be.’’

For Huntsman, the opportunity was two-fold: introduce himself to the voters and redirect criticism from conservatives who question his allegiances after he served as Obama’s ambassador to China.

Huntsman began his day answering questions about energy policy and health care for well-heeled GOP activists nibbling muffins and sipping coffee in back-to-back house parties.

The largely warm audiences sought a clearer picture of the former Utah governor and his views. A few also sought to distinguish him from another former governor: Mitt Romney.

Huntsman and Romney share plenty of attributes, including their Mormon faith; talking points dominated by moderate, economically dominated positions; and their past roles as governors. But if Huntsman is to have much success against the much better-known and better-financed Romney, he will have to be able to distinguish himself and his accomplishments.

John B. Hunt, a Republican state representative, said he has no interest in Romney, largely because of the health care legislation passed in Massachusetts, and was shopping for another candidate.

“He’s clearly a contrast to Romney,’’ said Hunt, who joked with the unofficial candidate about the similarity of their names. “He’s someone I’d be interested in because I think he did it the right way in Utah.’’

Huntsman talked about the need for a national energy policy that would initially require a shift from petroleum fuels to more natural gas and would eventually include substantial amounts of renewable energy.

He touched on federal spending, which he said was “ship-wrecking our country,’’ and he praised the Republican budget plan from Representative Paul Ryan, who proposed changing Medicare into a voucher program as part of an extensive overhaul of entitlement programs and spending cuts.

While Huntsman did not endorse the voucher specifically, he said it should be considered. “We don’t have enough in the way of options right now,’’ he said.

As the day went on, the issue that is likely to provide the greatest distinction between Huntsman and Romney emerged: their approach to health care in the states they governed.

Romney has been forced to repeatedly defend the Massachusetts health law he shepherded and its insurance mandate, which was incorporated into the national overhaul, the Affordable Care Act.

Without directly criticizing Romney, Huntsman underscored his view several times that health care can be improved without a mandate if there are affordable options for the uninsured to buy. Other measures could also improve health care, he said, such as a better system of record-keeping and more leeway for states to experiment.

In Utah, Huntsman worked with the Legislature and businesses to develop legislation that sought to lower costs.

As one of his last acts as governor in March 2009, he signed the bill that created a low-cost plan and an exchange to allows the uninsured to compare plans to buy.

It does not require residents to buy insurance as in Massachusetts. Huntsman said yesterday that he considered but did not press for mandates, but Democrats in New Hampshire pointed to press accounts in 2008 saying that he preferred mandates.

Dante Scala, chairman of the political science department at the University of New Hampshire, said the health care issue could be key to Huntsman’s ability to attract moderate Republicans and independents.

“What Huntsman will try to do is convince those moderate activists that he’s Mitt Romney without all the baggage,’’ he said.

At day’s end, any comparisons with Romney were less of a concern among the veterans Huntsman addressed than his views about the use of the US military and assistance for veterans.

Angwin asked Huntsman whether he thought the draft should be reinstated, a question that prompted the potential candidate to hesitate before responding that he thought the current volunteer armed forces was working fine, but he would give the idea of a conscripted military more consideration.

Angwin, who thinks that the armed forces would be better served by more young people in the services, said the two of them did not see eye to eye — but that’s all right by him.

“That’s OK to disagree,’’ he said. “It’s healthy to disagree.’’

Theo Emery can be reached at temery@globe.com.