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'We need a little groundswell'

Last modified: 11/16/2011 12:00:00 AM
Jon Huntsman is running a traditional, retail politics campaign in New Hampshire. He has 55 days left to make it work.

"We are working this state like no one else," he told an audience of more than 100 voters last night in Portsmouth. "We are being honest. We are being sincere. We are bringing a vision that is realistic and doable for this country. And I say, now we need some people. We need a little groundswell. And this is where we're going to get it, in New Hampshire."

"I don't care what the rest of the country thinks or feels. That's not important. I do care about what the people of New Hampshire feel, because this is important," Huntsman continued. (He later told reporters he was referring to polls.)

Last night's town hall was Huntsman's 100th public event in the state since May, according to the campaign. He has more events today and tomorrow in Derry and Newport.

The campaign said it has field representatives in each of New Hampshire's 10 counties. A pro-Huntsman "Super PAC" went on the air this week with its first television ad. His staff is organizing sign-waves and phone banks as the Jan. 10 primary approaches. But Huntsman has a long way to go. His support in recent state polls topped out at about 10 percent, and more often has been in the single digits.

"You never say never in the New Hampshire primary," said Mike Dennehy, who helped guide John McCain's 2000 and 2008 wins in New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary and isn't affiliated with a candidate this cycle.

"But," he added, "let's face it. Mitt Romney is in the mid-40s. Jon Huntsman is in the mid-single digits. To close that gap . . . with seven weeks left is a monumental challenge."

 Echoes of McCain

Huntsman's basic pitch hasn't changed too much over the months on the trail. He continues to highlight his experience as Utah's governor from 2005 to 2009 as well as his foreign policy acumen, especially on China. He's trumpeted the Beehive State's job growth under his administration, as well as tax and health insurance reform.

He's done major policy speeches on taxes and jobs, foreign affairs and energy. He presents himself as an informed problem-solver with an offbeat sense of humor.

But as his fundraising and support in national polls has lagged, Huntsman has increasingly focused on New Hampshire as his best chance to win an early victory and gain momentum. He even moved his headquarters from Florida to Manchester.

His New Hampshire-first strategy echoes that of McCain, the Arizona senator who ran for president in 2000 and 2008, winning New Hampshire both times and capturing the GOP nomination in 2008. (Huntsman employs a number of McCain campaign veterans.)

But Dennehy said the two men are very different - McCain "from Day 1 had a very strong reform message, and he never wavered from that," he said. "I think Jon Huntsman still needs to give New Hampshire voters a reason to support him."

And 2012 isn't 2008 or 2000. In 2008, McCain had the advantage of having already won the New Hampshire primary once. And in 2000, Dennehy said, the field had largely narrowed to McCain and George W. Bush, as opposed to today's crowded contest.

"That being said, a strategy that is focused on heavy retail and grassroots campaigning, that's what every candidate running for president should do in New Hampshire," he said.

Huntsman also says he wants to win the support of independents voting in the Republican primary, who could be a larger-than-usual block as Obama won't face a major opponent in the Democratic primary.

In a University of New Hampshire survey of likely GOP primary voters taken Sept. 26 to Oct. 6, Huntsman was more popular among registered undeclared voters (36 percent favorable to 27 percent unfavorable) than among registered Republicans (20 percent favorable to 29 percent unfavorable).

Still, UNH pollster Andy Smith said the importance of the undeclared-voter block in New Hampshire is often overstated.

"You've got to win among your own party," he said. "You've got to win your party's supporters if you're going to win the New Hampshire primary."

 Shoe-leather campaigning

Huntsman spoke for more than an hour last night at the Elks Lodge in Portsmouth, discussing health care reform, manufacturing policy, taxes and trade with China.

He said the United States faces a "trust deficit" and he wants to restore "trust in our key institutions, trust in our leaders."

And Huntsman criticized several rivals by name: businessman Herman Cain for the 9 percent national sales tax in his 9-9-9 plan ("Who on Earth is going to vote for a 9 percent increase in your sales tax?"); Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, for "trimming around the edges, as usual;" and Texas Gov. Rick Perry for proposing an optional flat tax that "is still rigging the system."

Huntsman said he believes he'll do well here, in the end.

"I want a steady, substantive rise in New Hampshire, and I want to make sure that when we get to the end of December, it is sustainable," he said. "I don't want these ephemeral spikes up and down."

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com.)


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