ROCHESTER, N.H. – Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman is doing the same thing he’s been doing for six months – talking to New Hampshire voters a roomful at a time.
But after months of remaining stuck in the single digits in the polls, the Republican presidential candidate is showing some signs of success in the final weeks before the New Hampshire primary. His state poll numbers are rising, he received two newspaper endorsements today, and many independent voters say they’re looking at Huntsman.
Huntsman told an audience of 50 at the Governor’s Inn today, “I feel the energy in this state.’’ He compared it to a wave. “Once it begins, you can’t stop it,’’ he said. “I feel it moving into the end of December into early January, peaking right about January 10,’’ the date of the New Hampshire primary.
Huntsman was a former ambassador to China under President Obama, the Democrat he hopes to replace. After months of failing to gain traction, the Huntsman campaign says they believe voters originally passed over Huntsman because of his service to a Democratic president.
Huntsman’s wife, Mary Kaye, pressed the case that he has been making throughout his campaign – he answered the call of service to his country. With two sons in the Navy, Mary Kaye Huntsman said, “What example would he have set to say no to service to his country?’’
With C-SPAN filming his town hall meeting and with two New Hampshire newspapers – the Valley News and the Keene Sentinel – endorsing him, supporters say they hope Huntsman has hit his stride.
“He’s finally getting the attention I think he deserves,’’ said Bob Bestani, a former congressional candidate. “New Hampshire has a long history of surprising voters. Even if he comes in second, that’s a win.’’
Huntsman reveled in the newspaper endorsements, remarking to reporters, “That’s pretty cool. Did you ever think you’d see that?’’
A Suffolk University/7NEWS poll last week put Huntsman in third place in New Hampshire with 13 percent of the vote, behind former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
But even if Huntsman does well in New Hampshire, he will face an uphill struggle. While Romney has been building up his campaign organization around the country, and Gingrich enjoys nationwide name recognition, Huntsman has poured almost all his resources into New Hampshire, with some campaigning in South Carolina and Florida. His fund-raising has been low.
Asked how he could compete in a protracted nomination fight, Huntsman joked, “We haven’t thought about that one yet.’’ He went on to describe his efforts and endorsements in South Carolina.
Huntsman said success in New Hampshire would automatically have its rewards.
“You do well in New Hampshire and the marketplace all of a sudden accommodates the reality of your rise,’’ he said. “Fund-raising comes in.’’
So Huntsman is continuing his frenetic pace in the state – holding his 125th through 128th public events today. He took questions from voters, and talked about tax reform, regulatory reform, energy independence, and limited foreign engagement.
He said he would impose fees on large financial institutions, until they shrunk so they were no longer “too big to fail.’’ He called for congressional term limits.
Asked by a reporter about immigration, he said it is “logically and financially impossible’’ to deport all illegal immigrants, but there must be a “humane and comprehensive approach’’ that involves paying fines and back taxes, and learning English.
The Suffolk University poll showed that the key to Huntsman’s success will be independent voters. Huntsman received support from 20 percent of independents, coming in second to Romney in that group.
Today, many of those listening to Huntsman were independents. John Thompson, a retiree from Center Harbor, voted for Obama in 2008, but after hearing Huntsman speak, plans to support the Republican. “He’s the only sane Republican. The others are crazy,’’ Thompson said, pointing to Huntsman’s economic-centered foreign policy, fiscal conservatism, and refusal to sign pledges.
Mary Bare, an independent voter and real estate company owner, is undecided. “(Huntsman)’s a formidable candidate,’’ Bare said. “He’s level-headed.’’
But Bare recognizes that other candidates have gotten more exposure. “If he started earlier, got his message out, he’d be in a better place,’’ she said.
James Edgar, a retiree and independent voter who heard Huntsman speak in Meredith, is debating between Huntsman and Gingrich. Edgar has liked Gingrich since his days as speaker, when Gingrich helped balance the federal budget and pass welfare reform.
Yet, Edgar likes Huntsman’s energy plan.
“It’s going to be tough. That’s why I’m here today,’’ he said.