Jon Huntsman has pitched himself as the hipster candidate in the Republican presidential primary, the one who dropped out of high school to play in a rock band and still loves motorcycles. The perfect candidate to headline a convention of College Republicans.
"I want to win over every single one of you,'' he told hundreds of young voters gathered Friday in Washington, D.C. Later Huntsman added, "President Obama won the youth vote in 2008 because he offered hope. We're going to win in 2012 because we're offering answers.''
But Huntsman's flat delivery and awkward references to "doing Google'' and "the Twitter'' drew grimaces and snickers as he struggled to connect with the twenty-something crowd. He frequently looked down at his notes instead of engaging the audience. In an adjoining room where some of the sold-out crowd watched him on a large television monitor, Huntsman was hard to hear over the dinner conversation at times.
"He hasn't really said anything that's got me excited so far,'' said Jeremy Douglas, a recent North Dakota State University graduate.
That feedback, echoed by several other students, reflects the overall reaction by Republican voters to Huntsman's candidacy since he got into the race last month. After an initial burst of media hype over the improbable campaign by President Obama's former ambassador to China, Huntsman has remained on the sidelines of the race and the bottom of the polls.
He and other candidates have been largely overshadowed by their more charismatic rival, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who threatens to overtake Mitt Romney at the top of the polls. The spotlight could become even more elusive if the equally audacious Texas Gov. Rick Perry - whose name was mentioned by many of the college students - enters the race next month.
Huntsman is headed to New Hampshire Monday for a five-day stretch that illustrates how crucial the nation's lead-off primary is to his campaign. But the former Utah governor has shied from directly attacking Romney, his biggest rival in the state, even after his a top adviser last week promised a more "aggressive'' approach.
On Friday, Huntsman saved his harshest words for Obama's role in the high-wire negotiations with Congress over a looming debt crisis.
"The president has given press conferences, he's lectured, he's pointed fingers, he's regurgitated DNC talking points, but he still not offered a plan,'' Huntsman said. "My fellow candidates -- and I love them all - aren't offering any real solutions or are ducking the debate entirely. A leader is not someone who sits quietly on the sidelines during a debate of monumental consequences for our future.''
Romney refused to take an unequivocal position in favor of the debt ceiling plan touted by House Speaker John Boehner, passed by the House and rejected by the Senate on Friday. His reticence created an obvious opening for Huntsman, the only candidate who fully backed Boehner's plan to avoid a potentially devastating government default on Tuesday. Instead of seizing the opportunity to contrast himself with a leading Republican rival, Huntsman seems to be positioning himself more as the most competitive general election candidate against Obama.
"We're going to need a nominee of the Republican party,'' he said, "who can actually put together the kind of broad-based coalition that gets us to win in the end.''
Obama's vulnerability was highlighted Friday by the Gallup Daily tracking poll that showed his job approval rating hitting a new low, averaging 40% in late July. But Huntsman has yet to convince Republican voters that he would be the most potent challenger. Some College Republicans pictured him in a different administration role. "He would make a great secretary of state," suggested University of Georgia student Jamie Jordan.