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Huntsman kicks off tour in New Hampshire

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Matthew Cavanaugh GETTY IMAGES Republican Presidential Candidate Jon Huntsman takes part in a Lincoln-Douglas style debate with GOP front runner Newt Gingrich at Saint Anselm College on Dec. 12, 2011 in Manchester, New Hampshire.

PELHAM, N.H. — The action may be in Iowa this week, but Jon Huntsman isn’t.

The long-shot Republican candidate is in New Hampshire, where on Wednesday night he kicked off a nearly two-week tour aimed at generating some momentum for his unorthodox presidential campaign. Wearing a New Hampshire flag lapel pin before an audience of several dozen in an auditorium in the town of Pelham, the former Utah governor played down the significance of the first-in-the-nation caucuses about to unfold in Iowa and told voters that their state was more important.

 “You know, Iowa’s going to be forgotten about one day” after Tuesday’s caucuses, Huntsman said. “And then everyone’s going to be focused on New Hampshire, because you’re the first primary. . . . And as New Hampshire speaks, everybody tends to listen.”

As is the tradition, New Hampshire will be the second state to choose its preferred Republican nominee. While Iowa holds caucuses, which typically limit participants to the most devoted of Republican activists, New Hampshire holds a primary that is open not only to Republicans but to independents and unregistered Democrats, as well.

Huntsman hopes to do better among that broader pool of voters. He made a splash when he entered the nomination race earlier in the year, announcing his intentions against the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty and releasing quirky videos to build some buzz around his candidacy. But he never gained much traction, especially among conservative voters who have voiced skepticism about his moderate views on energy and foreign policy and his decision to serve as ambassador to China under President Obama.

 He has never campaigned in Iowa, where a recent CNN/Time/ORC poll showed he has the backing of about 1 percent of likely Republican caucus-goers. He apparently hopes to put himself back in the game by campaigning heavily in New Hampshire, where primary voters will cast their ballots Jan.10.

 Even in New Hampshire, his support is relatively weak; the CNN poll put him in fourth place after Mitt Romney, Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, with the support of 9 percent of likely primary-goers. But he told voters Wednesday he is undeterred, and urged them to back him because of his unique ability in the GOP field to appeal beyond the Republican Party.

  “You’ve got a choice,” Huntsman told the Pelham audience. “You can do what the establishment is telling you to do and go with a status quo like governor Romney. You can go with Congressman Paul, but he’s not electable at the end of the day, let’s be real about it. Or you can go with someone who can go the distance.”

 In his remarks, Huntsman criticized the growth of the federal deficit under Obama and lamented that there was also a “deficit of trust” in the nation’s institutions, vowing to address both if elected to the White House. He advocated a more limited role for the U.S. military overseas and urged greater engagement with Asia as its countries expand their global influence and power.

He argued that a strong finish in New Hampshire could catapult him to success in other states and was not above doling out a little flattery to show his dedication to the state. He praised the seriousness with which New Hampshire voters approach elections and joked that he’d been in the state so many times he has picked up the local accent.

 “Not sure what we’re going to do about that,” the cowboy-boot-clad candidate said. “And I’ve developed an addiction to these lobster rolls, as you call it? But we’re going to do great in this state.”

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