New Hampshire, meet Jon Huntsman

Video: Former Republican Governor Jon Huntsman spent two years as Barack Obama's ambassador to China. Now he's eying a run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. The Washington Post's Dan Balz and Chris Cillizza explain.

CONCORD, N.H. — On a five-day swing through New Hampshire, Jon Huntsman Jr. is taking his boldest steps yet toward a possible presidential bid, meeting with voters and offering the kind of personal exchanges they have come to expect in this politically critical state.

In a series of meetings in living rooms and watering holes, Huntsman has patted shoulders, shaken hands and attempted to answer this question:

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“Aside from Utah, who are you, and what have you done?” one voter asked Friday.

That is Huntsman’s fundamental challenge — explaining his record as governor of a small Western state, his most recent job as President Obama’s ambassador in China, and why he has launched a potential bid to unseat his former boss.

Huntsman tried to preempt a specific question about his tenure in China.

“Let me just say, we’ve been asked occasionally, ‘Well, you served President Obama,’ ” he said. “I did serve President Obama. I served my president, my president asked me to serve, in a time of war, in a time of economic difficulty in this country. I’m the kind of person, when asked by my president to stand up and serve my country, when asked, I do it.”

Huntsman said he is in the “due diligence” phase of weighing a race for the White House and is expected to decide by June. In the meantime, he has some work to do in raising his profile.

While he is well-known in Washington and just purchased a home in the city, he is unfamiliar outside of political circles and Utah, where he served one full term and part of a second before Obama tapped him for the post in China.

The most recent Granite State polls show Huntsman barely registering with primary voters — 71 percent of Republicans still don’t know who he is.

“There’s nobody in this room that hasn’t met Romney,” said retiree George Kidd, 73, at a house party in Hancock, referring to Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and likely presidential candidate. Huntsman, Kidd said, “comes in as a stranger and he said a lot of things that Republicans might not want to hear. Maybe three months from now we’ll think he’s great.”

Huntsman’s potential entry into the race comes right after Newt Gingrich stumbled in his debut as a candidate, tripped up when he criticized Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget proposal and then apologized for the criticism. Huntsman was careful not to make the same mistake, saying he supported the Ryan plan, which would fundamentally change the Medicare program.

Huntsman tweaked Obama over his Thursday speech, which called on Israel to negotiate for peace based on its boundaries before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. “If you respect Israel, we probably ought to ask what they think is best,” Huntsman said. That was a more measured critique than the one delivered by Romney, who charged Obama with “throwing Israel under the bus.”

Yet Huntsman broke with the president and more hawkish Republicans, including Romney, over Libya, arguing against intervention, even in the face of a humanitarian crisis.

“It’s an affordability issue. With all of our deployments and all of our engagements abroad, we need to ask a fundamental question: Can we afford to do this?” Huntsman said at a house party in Hancock. “I felt from the beginning that Libya was not in our core national security interest.”

Asked whether his views put him in the more moderate wing of his party, Huntsman briefly highlighted his credentials as a fiscal conservative.

“Look at my record. Labels and tags are going to be thrown around in politics; they always are,” he said. “In some cases, you have to peek beneath the veneer. You have to look at one’s history and one’s record.”

Huntsman, who said he is in the “due diligence” phase of weighing a race for the White House, has some work to do in raising his profile. While he is well-known in Washington, and in fact, just purchased a home in the city, little is known about him outside of the political chattering class and in Utah, where he served one full term and part of a second before Obama tapped him for the China post.

The most recent Granite State polls show Huntsman barely registering with primary voters — 71 percent of Republicans still don’t know who he is. He acknowledged as much in a meet-and-greet at Jesse’s Restaurant, where he was swarmed by Washington-based reporters and peppered with questions from Dartmouth College students and local retirees.

Acknowledging that former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who has a home in this state, has been sitting on a comfortable lead in state polls, Huntsman noted that New Hampshire often bucks conventional wisdom.

“We are the quintessential margin-of-error potential candidate, and I understand that New Hampshire loves margin-of-error candidates,” he said. “You run them through the system, and usually you treat them with some respect.”

Huntsman spent about an hour with roughly two dozen voters, answering questions on China, Israel, Afghanistan, energy and the economy. China’s booming economy has produced giddiness all over that vast country, Huntsman said, while in America, “we’re a little depressed, we’re a little down, we’re a little dispirited.”

Warning against a “lost decade,” Huntsman argued for an industrial revolution powered in part by the energy sector.

He tweaked the president on his Thursday speech on Middle East policy and Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, saying that negotiations are delicate and ongoing, and “that if you respect Israel, we probably ought to ask what they think is best.”

Compared to Romney, who charged Obama with “throwing Israel under the bus,” Huntsman took a more measured tune.

But, as he tries to find his footing as a potential candidate in a field that has yet to produce a strong frontrunner, Huntsman pre-empted what might be one of the most pressing questions so far for Republican primary voters

“Let me just say, we’ve been asked occasionally, ‘well, you served President Obama.’ I did serve President Obama, I served my president, my president asked me to serve, in a time of war, in a time of economic difficulty in this country,” he said. “I’m the kind of person when asked by my president to stand up and serve my country, when asked, I do it.”

On Saturday, Huntsman,will address graduates at Southern New Hampshire University (where Obama in 2007 delivered the commencement speech). He will wrap up his visit next week.

Asked whether his views on various issues put him in the more moderate wing of his party, Huntsman briefly highlighted his record as a fiscal conservative.

“Look at my record. Labels and tags are going to be thrown around in politics, they always are,” he said. “In some cases you have to peek beneath the veneer. You have to look at one’s history and one’s record.”

 
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