Thu., May 19, 2011 3:30pm (EDT)

Huntsman Flirts With Up-In-The-Air GOP Race
By Liz Halloran
Updated: 3 years ago

Democrats have cranked up their attacks on Huntsman, as he prepares a swing through New Hampshire.
Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump are out.

Ron Paul and Herman Cain are in; so is embattled Newt Gingrich for now.

Mitt Romney is raking in the dough, if not enthusiasm, but hasn't "officially" announced.

And Thursday, former two-term Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, most recently President Obama's man in China, has become the latest to formally test the GOP presidential waters, beginning a swing through New Hampshire to see if he's the Republican they've been waiting for.

Some Beltway sages suggest that the 2012 Republican field is coalescing.

But a look at the early primary state of New Hampshire and the new push by the largely unknown Huntsman tells a different story.

"We are still in the Google phase of this campaign," says New Hampshire political analyst James Pindell, who runs WMUR-TV's influential Political Scoop website.

Romney, the former governor of next-door Massachusetts and owner of a lake home in New Hampshire, may be leading the GOP horse race. The latest WMUR Granite State Poll showed that 36 percent of those surveyed preferred Romney, who finished second in the state's 2008 contest to eventual nominee Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).

(The next closest would-be candidate cited by voters was Donald Trump, who at the time of the poll was still raking in publicity with his pseudo-run, preferred by 11 percent of those surveyed.)

But most Republican voters have yet to make up their minds.

The recent Granite State Poll found that only 5 percent of those surveyed have "definitely decided" whom they are voting for, poll director Andy Smith said when results were released early this month.

That suggests that Romney is in a strong position, but he is not inevitable.

Especially, analysts say, if a moderate candidate like Huntsman can make his case to the state's game-changing trove of conservative-leaning independent voters.

Not to mention what would happen to the field if the still-reluctant would-be candidate Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels decides to jump in.

But that's another story.

Huntsman's Test

Huntsman has much more going for him in a state like New Hampshire, where the conservative social issues that dominate early presidential tests in Iowa and South Carolina aren't game changers.

The former U.S. ambassador to China has supported same-sex unions, a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who meet certain criteria, and has indicated past support for the president's health care reform.

What he doesn't have is name recognition.

"Right now, people are making judgments on paper 'Oh, he's from Utah, he's a Mormon, and he's got lots of money'," says Charlie Arlinghaus, who heads the free-market Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy in Concord, N.H.

"It's hard to know about Huntsman it's hard to know who a candidate is going to appeal to, until he tries to appeal to people," Arlinghaus says.

Granite State politicos analyzing the stops on Huntsman's five-day New Hampshire visit, the longest sustained campaign-style swing of any candidate this year, Pindell says, see a clear template.

Arlinghaus calls the schedule "very McCain-y," from the many former McCain people organizing it, to the towns and counties he's visiting, including a house party in Keene, in the Democratic stronghold of Cheshire County. Obama won 63 percent of the vote in that county in the 2008 general election. That party will be hosted by Juliana Bergeron, who lost her race for state GOP chairwoman this year to Tea Party activist Jack Kimball.

John DiStaso, senior political reporter for the Union Leader, in a column this week also invoked McCain in what he characterized as Huntsman's "aggressive" catch-up schedule in New Hampshire.

Huntsman delivers a commencement address Saturday at Southern New Hampshire University, and has other stops at locations that include a gun shop, a country store, a library, a VFW Post, and a cafe in Wolfeboro, where he'll meet with members of the Winnipesaukee Republican Committee.

Romney's Granite State home is on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee.

Democrats Attack

Huntsman is a candidate who, if he runs and is able to emerge from the primary contests, is viewed as a legitimate general election threat.

And the Democratic message machine has already cranked up its attacks in anticipation of his New Hampshire visit.

The national and state Democratic parties issued a "checklist" attempting to characterize Huntsman as the "new Mitt Romney." And that meme was extended Thursday in a Concord Monitor opinion column by former New Hampshire Democratic Congressman Richard Swett, who also served as U.S. ambassador to Denmark.

In questioning where Huntsman will now come down on issues including same-sex marriage and pollution limits, Swett liberally employed the phrase "flip-flop," a description Romney previously appeared to have cornered.

"Jon Huntsman may just be the latest candidate in a presidential primary where all the competitors are moving to the right as quickly as possible," Swett said. "If Huntsman follows this well-trodden path, it will be nothing new and nothing as fresh as the Washington pundits suggest his candidacy to be."

Winning Map

It will be a tough balancing act for Huntsman, who has a history of moderate positions and service to the Obama administration.

He goes from selling himself in "Live Free or Die" New Hampshire, to speaking at the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition conference June 3 in Washington.

While in New Hampshire, Huntsman has scheduled a meeting with unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Ovide Lamontagne, considered one of a handful of Republicans whose endorsements are, as the NH Journal says, "in a different stratosphere altogether."

Lamontagne, who supported Romney in 2008, was viewed as the Tea Party favorite in last year's GOP senate primary, won by now-Sen. Kelly Ayotte. But Lamontagne is a stalwart Republican from way back, having worked in the party for a quarter-century.

He has not yet endorsed a 2012 candidate.

In fact, a Pindell-curated "endorsement tracker" shows that only a handful of the state's top Republicans have gotten behind a candidate: former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Romney have both secured nine endorsements; Huntsman has five, Paul has three, and Santorum and Gingrich are at two each.

So the notion that the GOP field is anywhere near the gel stage looks to be wishful thinking.

The unsettled nature of the field is reminiscent of the 1992 Democratic cattle call, from which Bill Clinton emerged, as well as the 1996 Republican field when the feeling toward the prospective candidates was, Pindell says, "unenthusiastic."

"Right now you have Tea Party candidates who can't believe Obama is going to get re-elected, and every establishment Republican more convinced he will," he said. "This campaign hasn't even started." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.