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Can Jon Huntsman become the Rick Santorum of New Hampshire?

Could Jon Huntsman become the new Rick Santorum?

Huntsman, who skipped the Iowa caucuses to focus exclusively on the New Hampshire primary, made that case for himself here Wednesday, arguing that after campaigning heavily in the Granite State for months he will be able to suddenly pick up steam ahead of the balloting next Tuesday.

What Santorum’s late surge “suggested, more than anything else, is that if you’re willing to get in a car and put in the hours that Rick Santorum is putting in, and working hard at the grass-roots level, you’ll have something to show for it,” Huntsman said during a stop at a factory.

Huntsman called the Iowa results “wonderfully ambiguous,” saying they showed that a majority of Republican voters are still looking for an alternative to front-runner Mitt Romney.

Much as Santorum poured all his hopes into Iowa, moving his family there and repeatedly visiting all 99 counties, Huntsman has focused almost entirely on New Hampshire. With his national numbers lagging, the former Utah governor has made more than 150 appearances and often jokes that he has picked up the local accent. He has predicted that a strong showing in New Hampshire would catapult him in the following early-primary states.

But that may be difficult momentum for Huntsman to gain. As tumultuous as the Republican presidential campaign has been so far, the former ambassador to China has remained fairly far down in the polls even in New Hampshire, with Romney, a former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, holding a commanding double-digit lead. A recent CNN/ORC International poll put Huntsman in third place among likely primary-goers in New Hampshire behind Romney and Paul.

Even one of Huntsman’s most prominent surrogates seemed to believe a victory in New Hampshire would be a long-shot. Former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, who appeared with Huntsman, predicted in an interview that the former Utah governor will not win here next Tuesday. “He has a shot at second, maybe,” Ridge said. “This is Romney’s state. A libertarian state, so Ron Paul will do well. So third or fourth, either way he [Huntsman] becomes a part of the debate.”

Ridge played down the significance of the Iowa caucuses, saying that only a small number of voters participated. Ridge also offered an oblique criticism of Romney, whose signs line many of the median strips here.

“One of the candidates has a sign, ‘Believe in America,” Ridge said. “Well, all Republican candidates, even President Obama, believe in America. That’s not new. . . . The question is, who do we want to lead America? Who’s the principled leader who comes across?”

Huntsman, who holds moderate views on energy and some other issues, is viewed with skepticism by some Republicans in large part because he served for two years as ambassador to China under Obama. But his stump speech before dozens of employees here largely echoed his more conservative rivals as he made grave warnings about American decline and advocated for a dramatically simpler tax code.

He diverged from some of his opponents when he called for an end to military action in Afghanistan and urged greater trade cooperation with Asia, including China, where he lived for a year and a half. His criticisms of the president were less biting than those of some of his opponents, and the speech was devoid of references to social issues or religion.

At one point, a woman in the audience asked Huntsman whether he is Mormon, as her grandfather was. He responded that he is indeed a Mormon. He then cracked of his grandfather, “So was mine, but he ran a saloon,” making reference to the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as it is formally called, has an injunction against consuming alcohol.

Afterward, Huntsman told reporters he has not laid out a specific goal for his performance next week, but that he will establish it the day before the Jan. 10 primary and take stock of his campaign the day after.

“I need to wake up the next morning on the 11th. I first need to see a smile on [wife] Mary Kaye’s face, which would be a good leading indicator, and then we need to see that we’ve exceeded the expectations set,” he said.

Sandhya Somashekhar is the social change reporter for the Washington Post.

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