PETERBOROUGH, N.H.— Time for the Huntsman Surge!
Everyone else has had one. It’s only fair. The Republican electorate has been squeezing the melons one by one. Could Jon Huntsman be ripe?
The Huntsman strategy has banked on the notion that a candidate gets a ticket out of Iowa if he never shows up in the first place. Tuesday evening, as the Iowans were caucusing, Huntsman held a town hall meeting in Peterborough, a town nestled in rugged terrain about an hour’s drive west from Manchester. The town hall was bathed in red, white and blue floodlights that gave the impression from a distance of bunting.
Inside, the former two-term Utah governor and ambassador to China faced what might have been his biggest and most energized crowd to date. He stood in the center of the hall, surrounded on all sides by people in folding chairs, with more people along the walls and a few dozen in the balcony. He had taken off his jacket and rolled up his sleeves. A good crowd energizes a candidate.
When a citizen asked Huntsman what his message would be to the winner of the Iowa caucuses, he paused for a moment, perhaps sensing that this could turn into the night’s sound bite.
“A message to the winner of the Iowa caucus,” he said. “It would be, ‘Welcome to New Hampshire, nobody cares.’”
Nationally, Huntsman barely fogs a mirror. The conventional wisdom says he’s too moderate for GOP primary voters. His service as President Obama’s envoy to China is viewed as a blot on the resume (in his stump speech he explains that he naturally served his country when called to do so).
In New Hampshire, though, his Santorumesque diligence – he said Tuesday night that he was holding his 150th public event in the state – has made him a familiar face and earned him third place in the latest statewide poll. (Romney has a commanding lead, followed by Ron Paul.) At the Peterborough event he boasted that he, and only he, has so far visited Lindy’s Diner in Keane, where every future president supposedly has stumped.
Huntsman is certainly attractive on the surface: He’s handsome, trim, with hair graying diplomatically. He’s got a gorgeous, sprawling family, including a trio of prepossessing 20-something daughters who have their own Web site, their own parody YouTube video and who showed up in Peterborough to help work the crowd.
Huntsman opened his stump speech by handing the microphone to his wife, Mary Kay, who gushed about her husband’s virtues: “He is common-sense reasonable. . .He is steady, he is consistent, he would never sell his soul for a vote.”
The governor took over and made his pitch.
“I am the underdog in this race. I need your help. You know what else? New Hampshire loves an underdog!”
He went on:
“This is a state that always upends conventional wisdom. The pundits come in, the graybeards, the analysts, and they say this is going to be the way it plays it out…and then the spotlight is going to be on you. Then you always rise up to the occasion, having done your due diligence.”
He talked about tax reform, debt reduction, ending corporate tax breaks and ending the war in Afghanistan, but in general avoided straying into wonkery. There’s an old-fashioned quality to his vocabulary – he says “darn,” and you expect any second that he’ll lob a “gee willikers.”
“We’re passing down this thing called humanity to the next generation – who we are, our values, our standing in the world, our economic performance – in this kind of shape? Give me a break!”
“We’re driving a 1955 Chevy, trying to travel on the superhighway of the 21st century, wondering why we can’t compete.”
“I am who I am. I’ve got a record I’m proud of. You might not like 100 percent of it, but look at it! It’s pretty darn good!”
When the gathering was over, Huntsman stayed until the crew had already begun removing the folding chairs. Mary Kay Huntsman told me that he’s a good listener – how many wives say that about their husbands? – and that at these events he will often be the last to leave the building.
She nodded when asked if there will be a Huntsman surge.
“He won’t be on the end of the stage here in New Hampshire,” she said. “He’s not a shooting star, he’s a rising star.”