Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman makes his maiden voyage to New Hampshire Thursday. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The centerpiece of Huntsman’s trip will be a commencement address on Saturday at Southern New Hampshire University but he also has a schedule packed full of house parties and smaller speaking events — an indication of how central the Granite State is to his broader electoral calculus.

John Weaver, a senior adviser to Huntsman’s political action committee, described New Hampshire as “hole number one in golf” and said that Huntsman would focus on “getting our fiscal house in order” during the trip.

Weaver, who served as a senior campaign strategist for John McCain’s 2000 and 2008 bids for president, insisted that Huntsman’s candidacy in New Hampshire would not be a facsimile of what the Arizona Senator did in the state. (McCain won New Hampshire in each of his presidential campaigns.)

“Every campaign reflects the candidate, not the people who work for the candidate,” said Weaver. He added, however: “Do we know how to campaign in New Hampshire and do we know the state well and do we have a lot of trusted friends there? Yes. And that’s a big plus.”

Huntsman has a big hill to climb in the state before the February 14 first-in-the-nation primary.

In a recent independent poll, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney led the New Hampshire primary field with 36 percent followed by businessman Donald Trump at 11 percent. (Trump has since decided not to run.) Huntsman did not register even a single percent in that poll.

And, according to one New Hampshire native and Republican strategist, Huntsman’s first challenge is to differentiate himself in a meaningful way from Romney.

“I think his similarities to Romney — whether real or not — are not the wedges he needs to change the status quo,” said the strategist who was granted anonymity to speak candidly.

(Huntsman South Carolina strategist Richard Quinn has described Huntsman as “like Romney...only with a personality”; Weaver told the Fix that Huntsman “approaches problems by searching to the free market as he did in health care” and drew a direct contrast on that issue Romney and President Obama.)

Mike Dennehy, a senior New Hampshire operative who ran McCain’s campaigns in the state, said that Huntsman’s biggest early hurdle is his service in the Obama Administration as Ambassador to China.

“The buzz around the state is that he worked for Obama and that’s all people know about him,” said Dennehy. “Only after he answers questions about his relationship with the President and his positions on Obama’s policies, and presuming Republicans are satisfied, can he begin developing connections with the state’s Republican activists, officials and voters.”

What almost no one disputes is that the path for Huntsman to wind up as the Republican nominee in 2012 involves either a victory or an exceeding of expectations in New Hampshire’s primary.

Huntsman seems likely to take a pass on competing in Iowa’s caucuses (as McCain did in 2000 and 2008) — a strategy that makes a strong showing in New Hampshire absolutely necessary to avoid going the way of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the 2008 contest.

And, unlike Iowa and South Carolina where the electorate has a strong social conservative element that might not react well to Huntsman’s support for civil unions , New Hampshire voters tend to be primarily focused on fiscal issues where Huntsman’s record as governor of Utah should play well.

New Hampshire also has a large swath of unaffiliated voters who are likely to participate in the Republican primary in 2012 since President Obama won’t face any substantial challenge for the Democratic nomination.

For Huntsman, New Hampshire is where his 2012 bid has to get off the ground. And his trip down the runway starts today.

Palin defends Gingrich: While many Republicans are attacking Newt Gingrich for his remarks on “right-wing social engineering,” former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin defended the former speaker on Fox News last night.

“I don’t know why politicians feel that they have to apologize for something that they said just because they’ve gone through a 24-hour cycle of the lamestream media giving them a hard time for something that they said,” Palin told “Hannity.”

But Palin also summarized Gingrich’s position thusly: “It sounded pretty clear to me that Newt Gingrich’s position, because he articulated this, was that Paul Ryan’s plan would be social engineering and he didn’t like it.” Gingrich has backed away from those comments as is likely not happy to hear them repeated.

As for her own 2012 ambitions, Palin said she was still “assessing the field,” adding that she “get[s] kind of frustrated with the political process.”

NY-26 debate focuses on Medicare: In the finale debate before next week’s special election in New York’s 26th district, Republican Jane Corwin and Democrat Kathy Hochul sparred over the budget proposed by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.)

“The plan that I’m supporting is not a voucher system,” Corwin vowed, but the way to save Medicare.

“It is a plan to tell people that I’m sorry, you no longer have that guaranteed insurance that you’ve paid into since your high school job,” Hochul, who serves as Erie County clerk, responded.

Corwin also addressed the altercation between one of her chief of staff and third party candidate Jack Davis. Corwin said she didn’t authorize the staffer to confront Davis or tape the incident, but that she did not plan to fire him.

“Someone on my staff who had done that — a taxpayer paid-for employee — they would have been fired,” said Hochul.

Davis did not participate in the debate.


Gov. Scott Walker (R) wants to extend unemployment benefits in Wisconsin.

A new Quinnipiac Poll finds Sen. Sherrod Brown (D) leading all potential challengers in Ohio.

Herman Cain’s wife will not be a “traditional ... campaign wife,” he tells the Daily Caller.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R) has joined Rep. Allen West (R) in recording a call for NY-26 voters in support of Corwin. Sixty thousands voters will get the call.

The pro-health reform lobbying group Protect Your Care is launching ads in Iowa and New Hampshire, thanking Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels for “standing up to the tea party on health care.”

President Obama will deliver a major speech on Middle East policy today.

Must Reads:

Democrats scale back 2012 map” - Christina Bellantoni, Roll Call

The GOP’s turnout problem” - Reid Wilson, National Journal