MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Jon Huntsman’s abrupt announcement on Tuesday of his elaborate plans for launching his presidental campaign was a reminder that the first major debate of the 2012 GOP primary produced winners and losers offstage, too.
With Huntsman branded a bum for missing the New Hampshire debate by some local party leaders, the former Utah governor’s campaign quickly responded by unveiling a four-day, six-state campaign launch beginning on Tuesday in New Jersey -- and, not so coincidentally, New Hampshire.
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Besides spurring Huntsman’s announcement, Monday night's debate seemed to leave a door open for a late arrival by Texas Gov. Rick Perry. With the lesser-known candidates shirking chances to take on Mitt Romney on national television -- including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who seemed to wilt in the face of his own criticism of the frontrunner -- Perry supporters could easily picture the rock-ribbed conservative swooping in to play that role.
“People would like to have some other options in the race, obviously,’’ Perry told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday before his highly anticipated keynote address to a GOP gathering in New York City.
And in a Tuesday interview with Fox Business Network, Perry said the advice he is receiving from a former aide to Newt Gingrich is "a clear sign that I’m certainly giving it an appropriate thought process. Six weeks ago, this was not on my radar screen.”
Perry said his wife and other confidantes have prodded him to look closer at the race. "They basically said, ‘Listen, our country is in trouble and you need to give this a second thought.' "
On the other hand, the buoyant debate performance by Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., the social conservative and fundraising dynamo who leads the House Tea Party Caucus, prompted day-after speculation about whether there's room left in the race for ex-Gov. Sarah Palin, the former vice presidential nominee from Alaska with a similarly spunky style and an overlapping political following.
“I don’t think anyone can deny the fact that Michele Bachmann is creating a groundswell in Iowa and is starting to create one in New Hampshire, and that means Sarah Palin is rapidly losing those opportunities,’’ said Mike Dennehy, a veteran GOP strategist who is not aligned with any of the presidential campaigns.
The other candidate basking in rave reviews after the debate was Romney, who is banking on New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary to be his gateway to the nomination. Huntsman is jockeying for the same launching pad but declined an invitation to participate in the CNN debate viewed by nearly 3.2 million people.
Just as Bachmann and Palin share a political base, so do Romney and Huntsman, both business-oriented former governors with a moderate record on social issues like gay rights and immigration reform.
“If it’s a good night for Mitt Romney, it’s a bad night for everybody else at the debate – particularly for the guy who wasn’t there,’’ said Brandon Giuda, a state representative in New Hampshire who has not taken sides.
Romney wore the frontrunner’s mantle comfortably in Monday’s debate and seemed to hit his stride after months of dodging barbs about the health care law he signed as governor of Massachusetts and his record of flip-flopping on other issues. His post-debate victory lap included a picturesque stop at Derry Feed & Supply, where he held court with about 50 reporters and photographers and joked about a future with Secret Service protection.
“It was a catastrophic mistake for Huntsman not to show up at the debate,’’ Dennehy said. “He’s proved he’s not ready for prime time.’’
Huntsman reacted quickly to counter that perception. In addition to making the official presidential campaign kickoff announcement, his spokesman Tim Miller noted his three trips to New Hampshire in less than six weeks and promised “countless opportunities to engage Governor Huntsman personally, as he has already shown his eagerness to participate in that type of retail campaigning traditional to New Hampshire.’’
It's a tough crowd in the Granite State, which cherishes its status as the host of the first presidential primary and expects candidates to pay proper homage and endure a thorough vetting.
One day before the debate, when the state’s former governor and party chairman John H. Sununu told CNN that ex-governors make good presidents but left Huntsman off his short list, he quipped, “Well I only support Republicans.’’ Sununu was referring to Huntsman’s two years serving as ambassador to China in the Obama administration.
Ovide LaMontagne, a former U.S. Senate candidate and likely candidate for New Hampshire governor in 2012, said he was puzzled about Huntsman’s reason for getting in the race after serving in the administration.
“I don’t hold it against him that he served, but he hasn't given a good answer for why he resigned to run against the person who appointed him,’’ said LaMontagne, nationally known for hosting presidential candidates at his home.
To be sure, Huntsman and the other candidates have plenty of time to knock down Romney's lead in the polls in New Hampshire, where voters pride themselves in a taking their time to settle on a candidate.
Even Romney’s team acknowledges that the race there is wide open. “We take every candidate seriously,’’ said New Hampshire consultant Jim Merrill. “We’re going to work for every vote.’’
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