MANCHESTER, N.H. – Jon Huntsman has a problem in the Granite State, and its name is Mitt Romney.
Huntsman, the former Utah governor and ambassador to China, has staked his presidential ambitions on a strong showing here in Tuesday’s first-in-the-nation primary. He has held more than 160 events in the state and is capping off his campaign on Monday with a six-stop “diner tour” and an evening town hall in Exeter.
But while Huntsman’s moderate profile would seem to be a perfect fit for New Hampshire, he faces a popular frontrunner with a home turf advantage.
“His roots are here,” Jeff Camara, a 57-year-old high school custodian from Swansea, Mass., said of Mitt Romney.
Camara was one of maybe 100 people who swarmed the former Massachusetts governor early Saturday morning after a town hall in the nearby town of Derry. He was also among the dozen or so supporters who reached through the crowd to thrust a baseball in Romney’s direction, in the hope that the GOP frontrunner might sign it.
Asked to explain Romney’s advantage in New Hampshire, Camara employed a baseball analogy.
“It’s the next state over from Mass, so that helps, being in your own back yard,” he said. “It’s like playing ball: If you’re back at your home park, it’s a better turnout. So he has a better turnout here.”
More than a dozen interviews with attendees at Romney’s Saturday event yielded the same answer: Romney is a favorite son here, a candidate that Granite Staters can call their own.
“Like he said, he’s got a place up here on the lake in New Hampshire,” Ted Cropper, a 65-year-old businessman from Chester, said after Saturday’s town hall. “He’s one of us. He’s a true New Englander in many senses, and a true American.”
Jerry Lombardo, 63, who is retired and from East Derry, said that he had been somewhat undecided before seeing Romney in person, but he left Saturday’s event “pretty solid” for the candidate.
“He has a connection,” Lombardo said. “He does. And in a neighboring state – he did okay. Massachusetts is a very tough state to be anything but a Democrat in. So he had his bumps, but basically I think he did a good job with what he had to work with.”
That means that no matter how hard Huntsman has tried to build a base of support in New Hampshire, he has always been working at a disadvantage.
“I think Mitt Romney being so local just overshadows everything,” said Huntsman supporter Claire Natola, a 43-year-old office manager from Meredith, at a campaign stop for the former Utah governor Saturday afternoon.
If Huntsman had gotten the same amount of media attention in the run-up to New Hampshire as did former senator Rick Santorum (Pa.) in the week before Iowa, Natola argued, Huntsman would likely be surging in the polls.
“I have to admit, I think a lot of people’s opinions come from the media,” she said.
That, of course, was before Huntsman’s strong performance in back-to-back debates on Saturday night and Sunday morning. He got more airtime than in previous faceoffs, directly challenged Romney’s stance on the issue of China’s currency -- and even channeled another New Hampshire favorite, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
Polls in recent days suggest that the eleventh-hour attention being lavished on Huntsman may prompt a stronger primary showing than expected, although even the candidate himself has dismissed any possibility of a victory.
What’s next for Huntsman after his Granite State gamble?
Some supporters predict he’ll go on to compete in Florida, the next early state where his moderate profile might appeal to voters. But there Huntsman would face a different problem: There may be no favorite son in the Sunshine State, but Florida is a big place, and without a win in either New Hampshire or Iowa, Huntsman faces tough odds raising enough name ID – not to mention cash.
And placing one’s focus primarily on one state could breed skepticism about a candidate’s ability to run a top-notch national campaign. (For more on that, see Giuliani, Rudy.)
Brad Ek, 71, a Derry native and former headmaster of the Pinkerton Academy, where Romney spoke on Saturday, said that Huntsman “just seemed to put all his effort into New Hampshire, and that was it.”
“Didn’t go to Iowa,” Ek said. “I don’t know if he’s going to South Carolina; I’m sure he is. But he just doesn’t seem to have the credentials.”
“Well, he got a late start,” noted Ken Hepworth, 71, a retired software engineer and also a Pinkerton alum. “Santorum, you never paid any attention to him during all the debates. ... But then all of the sudden his time came. I mean, Huntsman’s time hasn’t come yet. Maybe given enough time...”
“That’s what they’re hoping here in New Hampshire,” Ek said.
“That’s what they’re hoping,” Hepworth responded. “I think Huntsman said as long as he meets expectations, he’ll continue. He doesn’t have to win, he says, along as he exceeds expectations. And he’ll keep doing it. Maybe, eventually, he’ll catch on.”