PLYMOUTH, N.H. — Tom Irving has been a friend of Jon Huntsman’s for 25 years, ever since the two lived three blocks from each other in Vienna, Virginia.
As they stood on an overcast Saturday afternoon outside the Main Street Diner here in this central New Hampshire town, Irving, his daughter and several other Huntsman supporters from out-of-state reflected on their candidate’s struggling presidential bid.
“I’m with him to the bitter end!” Irving said, hoisting his Huntsman sign in the air.
Did he think Huntsman has a chance of winning in Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary here?
Irving paused. “No. But we’re gonna go down swingin’!”
Irving was one of about two dozen supporters who gathered at a corner just across the street from Plymouth’s town hall on this brisk afternoon to cheer on their candidate, a moderate who has pinned his hopes of winning the GOP presidential nomination on independent-leaning New Hampshire only to see his bid fail to gain traction as former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney solidifies his support.
Huntsman has held more than 150 events in the Granite State. But a CNN/Time/Opinion Research poll Friday showed him capturing only 9 percent of the state’s likely primary voters, tied with former House speaker Newt Gingrich behind Romney, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) and former senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
“I watch the debates,” said Josh Sacks, a 23-year-old IT consultant from Arlington, Va., who, like Irving, traveled to New Hampshire to volunteer for Huntsman. “He’s hands-on the most qualified guy to be president. Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with me that everyone doesn’t feel that way.”
While other candidates may be leading in the polls, Sacks maintained that it’s the enthusiasm of Huntsman’s backers that sets them apart.
“I’m surprised by the people who say they support him, by how enthusiastic they are, whereas the Romney people, they’re like, ‘Yeah, we’re voting for Mitt Romney. He’s got the best chance of winning,’ ” Sacks said. “But here, they really like him. Well, I came up from Virginia for a week just to campaign for the guy.”
Joey Kalmin also traveled to New Hampshire to campaign for Huntsman. The 20-year-old student from suburban Chicago said that he’s convinced Santorum will “flame out” and that this year’s proportional system of awarding GOP delegates gives Team Huntsman some hope.
“What’s different about this Republican primary compared to the past ones is that this one is not winner-take-all for a state; they’re proportional,” he said. “So this thing could carry on till May, even.”
A few minutes later, Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye, pulled up in a black SUV, along with several staffers. The volunteers outside the Main Street Station cheered and waved their signs in the air.
Inside the diner, the former governor, clad in a red parka and brown pants, was mobbed more by reporters and photographers than by locals as he introduced himself to patrons.
“There’s a big vote on Tuesday!” he told a man and a woman sitting at a table underneath a wooden sign reading, “Sit, Relax, Gossip.”
“We understand,” the man replied.
“We need help!” Huntsman said. “We need support.”
The main said he admired Huntsman’s stance on tax reform, and then — true to form for one of New Hampshire’s “tough sell” voters — told the former governor that he was unimpressed by his plan to bring back manufacturing jobs.
“From what I’ve heard about your ideas about trying to bring manufacturing back to the U.S. — and presumably, other types of jobs that’ve gone offshore, too — it seems easier said than done,” the man said.
Huntsman spent several minutes talking with the man about outsourcing costs and his plan to bring back jobs, then gave a “Great to see you” before moving on to the next table, where a man said he was fully behind Huntsman while his wife said she remained undecided.
As Huntsman and his wife made their way through the restaurant, the candidate — who spent two years as a missionary in Taiwan as a young man and later served as ambassador to Singapore and China — was stopped by a man who told him that his fiancee is from mainland China and is applying for a visa to live in the U.S.
“If I can just say – gongxi, gongxi,” Huntsman said, telling the man “congratulations” in Chinese. “You know what that means, right?”
“Yes!” replied the man, Barry Rudkin, a 62-year-old accountant from Moultonborough. He responded in Chinese that he was happy to meet Huntsman: “Jiandao ni hen gaoxing.”
Huntsman replied that he was also happy to meet the man — “Wo ye hen gaoxing jiandao” — before continuing on his way. Rudkin said afterward that he planned to vote for Huntsman and had been eager to talk with the candidate about China and the progress of his fiancee’s visa application process.
Huntsman talked with a few more voters and reporters from behind the restaurant’s bar. One reporter asked him whether his difficulty gaining traction made him think any differently about the Republican Party.
“Well, I know where I am, and I know where the American people are,” Huntsman said. “And I’m betting that if we get out of the New Hampshire primary in good shape, we’re going to go on and find a whole lot of great voters in this country who are sensible, who are sane and who want a better tomorrow and [a candidate] who’s going to be able to take care of this economic deficit.”
He then opened the door to the tiny diner and found himself back on the street, where a woman in a purple shirt threw her arms around him and proclaimed, “America needs you!”
“You hear that everybody?” Huntsman said as his small group of supporters cheered.
“America needs you to stay in this race! Thank you so much. Thank you.”
The woman, Claire Natola, is a 43-year-old office manager from Meredith, N.H. A registered independent, she said she has been voting Democratic since 1992 but has supported Huntsman ever since he jumped into the race.
“It’s just going to be amazing for America if he can actually succeed in this, and that’s why I’m voting for him,” Natola said. “He needs, he needs a lot of us. I mean, he’s low in the polls, but he needs our support.”
Would Natola break her 20-year Democratic streak and back Huntsman in November?
“I’ll be honest with you,” she said. “If he got the nomination, I’m not sure. I would probably still vote for Obama — because I lean that way.”
And that, in a nutshell, is Jon Huntsman’s problem: Some of his most enthusiastic support comes not only from outside the Granite State, but also from outside his own party.