MANCHESTER, N.H. – Jon Huntsman aims to exceed what he calls "market expectations" next week in this state's Republican primary. But that goal, which he defines as third place or better, could be out of reach.
Huntsman has invested months of diligent retail campaigning in New Hampshire without sparking the type of surge every other candidate in the nomination race has enjoyed, however brief. In an interview this week with National Journal, he suggested that the shallow focus and tone of the race are part of the reason.
"I expected the press to ask to substantive questions,” Huntsman said. “I‘ve never been asked about tax policy, never asked about foreign policy, never asked about the big issues of the day. Every time, I’m asked about process.… It’s like, what’s happening to our system of covering races? Our system of politics? It’s a complete dumbing-down.”
Complaints about the process and the press are a hallmark of a faltering campaign. Newt Gingrich is a case in point. As his support plummeted, he talked constantly about the beating he had taken from “false” negative TV ads in Iowa.
Huntsman is another example of failure to launch, and a mysterious one. He has a conservative record as governor and years of foreign-policy experience through several administrations, culminating with his role a ambassador to China in the Obama administration.
Yet Huntsman has yet to catch on with voters, either nationally or in New Hampshire. The Suffolk University tracking poll on Wednesday showed him dropping to 7 percent and fourth place. That was less than one-sixth the support for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and only 1 point ahead of Rick Santorum.
Huntsman ignored Iowa and concentrated exclusively on New Hampshire by building an expansive ground game and attending intimate, retail-oriented events statewide – he was scheduled to have made 150 public events in the Granite State by the time the GOP race shifted here on Wednesday. On Sunday night, he held a town hall in relatively rural Deerfield, halfway between population centers Manchester and Concord.
It drew about 75 people, most of whom seemed to walk away pleased with what they heard from the White House hopeful as he talked about imposing term limits on Congress and rebuilding the country’s trust in its leaders. “He seems very sincere, very nice, very knowledgeable,” said Denise McPherson, a 53-year-old Deerfield resident who attended with her husband, Ron, and their son. McPherson, however, said she hasn’t committed to supporting a candidate yet.
A day later, Hunstman toured downtown Nashua after meeting with its Republican mayor, Donnalee Lozeau, who didn’t endorse him but praised him for his being “very practical, no-nonsense straight-shooter.”
“Sometimes, the dust settles and people look around and go, ‘You know, who’s the thoughtful guy?’” Lozeau said. She added, “I think he’s just been quietly working toward gaining people’s respect and confidence.”
Huntsman’s campaign started slowly, beset by staff turnover and a message of civility that seemed out of sync with a conservative base hungry for red meat. But Huntsman thinks his service in the Obama administration put him at a disadvantage that he’s only recently overcome.
“To cross a party line, [Republicans thought,] 'Maybe he’s not one of us,' ” he said. “I come from the old school: I remember when Ronald Reagan asked Bob Strauss, chairman of the Democratic Party, to serve as the ambassador to the Soviet Union. We used to do those things in the old days. There was a sense of bipartisanship beyond our borders, on foreign policy. We’re losing that sense of service, bipartisan service. I’m not sure that’s a good thing.”
Huntsman still has a chance to finish in the top three in the Granite State – which he has said he must do to stay in the race – although he is behind Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich at this point, and at risk from a surging Santorum. Huntsman pledged last week to match every dollar donated to his campaign to air a TV ad in New Hampshire, and he’s enjoyed a plethora of local media attention the past two weeks while his opponents have been hundreds of miles away, crisscrossing the cornfields of Iowa. On Tuesday night, as Iowans were making their choices, Huntsman drew his biggest crowd yet -- 350 people at a town hall in Peterborough.
Huntsman said he’ll perform well in New Hampshire because of “honesty” and “hard work.” But if he finishes below expectations, he said he won’t lament his decision to run despite his concerns about the process. “We have privilege of running for the highest office in the land. I never thought I’d find myself doing this,” he said. “I have zero regrets.”