Candidate comes into focus

Last modified: Monday, May 23, 2011
Merrimack County Commissioner Peter Spaulding has been thinking about a Jon Huntsman presidency since 2008.

After watching his primary candidate that year, John McCain, fall to Barack Obama in the general election, Spaulding said he began to consider Huntsman the best Republican candidate for 2012. Then, the former Utah governor went off to China to serve as U.S. ambassador under Obama.

"I thought, 'Well, there goes that,' " Spaulding said.

When Huntsman decided to resign his post earlier this year and return stateside to explore a run, Spaulding quickly hopped on board. And yesterday, after witnessing the fourth day of Huntsman's five-day visit to the state, Spaulding was pleased with his instincts: Huntsman, he said, is "finely tuned to connect with people in New Hampshire."

"He's not bombastic, he's not loud, he's not aggressive - he's just steady and quiet, and he speaks very well," Spaulding said at an afternoon house party in Franklin.

But while Huntsman may have been on Spaulding's radar during the last four years, and his first visit to the Granite State brought in a horde of national media, the soft-spoken former governor will have to overcome limited name recognition and a late entry into the tentative primary field if he hopes to capture the Republican nomination.

Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College, said Huntsman has to "hit the ground running" to build support and

develop a message, but "the average voter probably isn't paying attention just yet, so he very much could appeal to them."

"I think if you are moderate, independent, lean Republican - this is a candidate for you," Lesperance said.

With that in mind, Lesperance said, New Hampshire is a place where Huntsman must be successful if he intends to seek the Republican nomination. In early contest states such as Iowa and South Carolina that are traditionally more heavily influenced by Christian conservatives, "it's difficult to imagine him scoring a win, place or show."

"New Hampshire really is his firewall," Lesperance said. "He has to do well here."

Bill Grimm, who hosted the Franklin event and served as state co-chairman on McCain's veterans coalition in 2008, said he just decided yesterday to back Huntsman after perceiving "a real sense of character."

"He can consider many different options, and he can work with people," Grimm said.

Huntsman, wearing a jean jacket and flannel shirt, began a short speech in Grimm's backyard to a couple dozen politically minded locals by focusing on his time in China.

"If you want to get a sense of where the world is going, get a sense of what the 21st century is going to look like, drop yourself in Beijing for a couple of years," he said. "While living in a country where everyone is rather excited and giddy and euphoric about economic growth there, you can't help but reflect back on our own country. And you see that we're in a funk. People are down, they're depressed, they're dispirited, because they know we can be doing a whole lot more in this country."

Huntsman said the country must solve its $14 trillion debt. He praised a proposal to move toward privatizing Medicare, put forth by Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, as "a very, very good one." In order to grow the economy, he said, the U.S. must address its high corporate taxes and reform its regulatory environment in order to spur another "industrial revolution."

Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield said he won't decide on a candidate until later this year, but he liked Huntsman's focus on the economic challenge to the U.S. posed by China.

"The way that they are headed, they are likely to overtake our economy," Merrifield said. "Unless we find a way to reverse that trend, we're going to find ourselves in second place. I'm not sure anyone in America would be really comfortable with that."

Kathy Rago, a local state representative, wasn't sold.

"I'm looking for someone who has a lot of passion," she said. "And he may, I just didn't see it."

Concord City Councilor Steve Shurtleff, a Democrat, said he will vote for Obama but said he was impressed by Huntsman's message to end rancor and divisiveness in politics.

"I think people are looking for a moderate voice on both sides of the aisle," he said.

Huntsman said sometime in June he will sit down with his family and decide whether to run for president. He described his visit to New Hampshire, which wraps up this morning at a house party in Durham, as "extraordinary."

"You are totally exposed. And you either sink or swim," he said. "It, I guess, can be the most intimidating experience in the world, or the most exhilarating American experience in the world."

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com.)