MANCHESTER, N.H. — Tuesday will be a day of reckoning for at least one of the Republican presidential hopefuls: Jon Huntsman, whose quirky and quietly rogue candidacy hinges entirely on a strong showing in the nation’s first primary.
Huntsman went for broke here, skipping Iowa and spending virtually the entire campaign in a state that seemed more receptive to his moderate views. For months, he has been trundling from town to town in New Hampshire wearing a silver belt buckle and cowboy boots, delivering mild-mannered critiques of the president and occasionally breaking into his fluent Chinese.
In the final sprint, Huntsman has gained some momentum and is aiming to draw votes from Mitt Romney, the front-runner and candidate with whom Huntsman shares the most ground ideologically.
In a debate Sunday, the former Utah governor drew applause when he chided Romney for criticizing his willingness to serve as ambassador to China under President Obama. “This nation is divided . . . because of attitudes like that,” Huntsman said.
He sounded the same theme a few hours later, when about 250 people packed into a Hampstead coffee shop to hear the Republican hopeful’s stump speech. “I put my country first,” he said. “Apparently, Mitt Romney doesn’t believe in putting country first.”
But the most recent polls show that he faces significant hurdles in the primary. Romney has a double-digit lead, with Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) a distant second. In a Suffolk University tracking poll released Sunday, Huntsman is in third place with about 11 percent and is only a few percentage points ahead of former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who finished second to Romney in last week’s Iowa caucuses.
When he entered the race six months ago, Huntsman’s politics and pedigree made him a candidate to watch. But critics say he committed a series of strategic errors that not only threaten his presidential bid but also could limit his future opportunities.
By choosing not to run in Iowa, he gave Romney a wide berth to consolidate moderates and claim to be the field's most electable candidate. And Huntsman’s hard-to-pin-down politics alienated him from conservatives as well as moderates in the party.
“Jon Huntsman’s candidacy is on life support. He has based his entire campaign on New Hampshire, but it has not come together,” said Mike Dennehy, a GOP strategist in New Hampshire who worked for the 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns of Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) but is unaffiliated this year. “Frankly I don’t know if he has that much of a political future because of the way he has conducted himself.”
Huntsman said he is pleased with the way he has conducted his campaign.
“We’ve worked every angle. We’ve worked hard. We’ve reached out to all corners of this state,” he told reporters at a house party in Bedford. “Then you leave it to the voters of the state.”
Campaign aides said his crowds have been growing larger as the primary approaches.
A lot is at stake for Huntsman, who gave up a great deal to run for president and has lost some of the cachet that garnered him so much early attention.
Huntsman made a splashy summer entrance into the race when he gathered his handsome family in front of the Statue of Liberty to announce his intentions. He grabbed headlines with his oddball Web videos, including one of him in motocross gear riding a dirt bike across the rugged terrain of Utah. He peppered his remarks with references to pop music, name-dropping Nirvana and talking up his own high school band, Wizard.
Beneath the crowd-pleasing antics was an impeccable résumé. The son of a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, Huntsman has held stints as a chief executive for the family’s chemical company and served in the Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He developed a reputation for bipartisanship in his two terms as governor.
But Huntsman struggled to gain traction and raise money as a candidate, despite his family’s connections and wealth.
He labored to explain why he was more electable than Romney, a fellow Mormon and former governor with a moderate record and a large, telegenic family. And he struggled to peg himself on the ideological spectrum, at turns calling himself a conservative alternative to Romney but also touting his moderate views on climate change, immigration and foreign policy.
Over the course of his campaign, Huntsman has alienated members of both parties. He miffed the Obama administration by stepping down from his post as ambassador to take on his erstwhile boss. He has been quick to criticize his own party, accusing climate-change skeptics of being anti-science and openly ridiculing real estate magnate Donald Trump, who has been influential in the GOP primary.
And he stunned observers by denigrating Iowa, remarking on CBS’s “The Early Show” last month that “they pick corn in Iowa and pick presidents here in New Hampshire” — a faux pas for a presidential candidate, or anyone contemplating a future run for the White House.
Part of Huntsman’s difficulty has been his own unusual place in American politics, made all the more exotic by his international flair. The former governor of a deep red state, Huntsman instituted a flat tax for Utah residents and promoted school vouchers. More recently, he was an early backer of Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) conservative budget plan, which has become something of a litmus test for GOP candidates.
But his image as a conservative is undercut not only by some of his moderate views but also by an overall moderate tone.
Huntsman’s language while criticizing the president is less caustic than that of his rivals. He often turns down opportunities, even when they are offered on a silver platter, to go on the attack or seize on conservative talking points.
At a recent town hall meeting in New Hampshire, a voter noted that her grandfather was a Mormon. But rather than talking about his faith, he made a joke about Mormonism’s admonition against alcohol use and hinted at his own more secular attitude.
“So was mine,” he said of his grandfather, “but he ran a saloon.”
A couple of days later, at an evening event in the tourist town of Newport, Huntsman was asked about illegal immigration. Rather than highlighting his call for greater border security, Huntsman began his response by arguing that immigrants no longer illegally cross the border in large numbers because of the ailing U.S. economy.
While his rivals tend to raise the specter of China as an economic and national security threat, Huntsman often advocates for a closer trade relationship with the Asian power. His affinity for the culture showed in Sunday’s debate, when he accused Romney of a poor understanding of U.S. policy toward China — in Mandarin.