Jon Huntsman Jr.’s bet that the contrarian impulse of New Hampshire voters would put him back in the Republican primary mix delivered a third-place finish that allows him to continue in the race for now.
He heads to South Carolina, site of the next Republican presidential primary, where he’s trailing other candidates as well as comedian Stephen Colbert.
Still, Huntsman’s 17 percent support should prompt a fresh look at his candidacy, which has been overshadowed by the competition among former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Governor Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum for support among voters motivated by such issues as abortion and gay marriage. Gingrich, Perry and Santorum each failed to draw 10 percent support in last night’s primary.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney won with 39 percent, and Representative Ron Paul of Texas finished second with 23 percent.
“Every not-Romney candidate has gotten a look,” said Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist not affiliated with any campaign. “Jon Huntsman’s about to get his. What he does with his 10 minutes after New Hampshire is going to be the most important part of his campaign.”
Huntsman plans to spend the better part of the next 10 days in the Palmetto State and converting credibility gained from last night’s finish into donations for his campaign.
The victory could also give his allies a stronger pitch for wealthy supporters asked to write checks to Our Destiny PAC, an independent political action committee largely financed by his father, Jon Huntsman Sr.
‘Three Tickets Out’
“There are three tickets out of New Hampshire and we’ve got one of them,” Huntsman said as he was leaving his Manchester hotel last night.
He said he’d continue to press the same themes he’s sounded in New Hampshire: taking an anti-Wall Street message to South Carolina, stressing the imperative to tackle trust and economic deficits and putting a premium on Americans needing to come together “first and foremost.”
“They worked here, it will work there,” he said.
Huntsman, 51, skipped the Iowa caucuses to focus on New Hampshire, holding more than 170 public events in all 10 counties and in more than 100 towns since announcing his candidacy in June.
Touted Job Creation
The former Utah governor touted his economic credentials, calling himself the “most consistent conservative” and contrasted his job creation record with that of Romney. He told voters that Utah led the nation in job creation in the mid 2000s under his leadership, while Massachusetts was ranked 47th during Romney’s tenure.
Huntsman pledged to close the revolving door of lobbyists and lawmakers in Washington and embraced President Barack Obama’s Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission, which called for a mix of revenue increases and spending cuts to lower the nation’s debt.
He also highlighted his unique foreign policy experience gained as an ambassador to Singapore under former President George H.W. Bush and most recently as Obama’s ambassador to China.
“When you see this nation abroad you tend to see it in bold colors,” he told supporters last night.
Huntsman, whose campaign was $3 million in debt in September, according to the most recent data available, was able to continue competing with the help of Our Destiny Pac, which spent $914,000 in advertisements from Nov. 7-Jan. 5.
It was the only political action committee to spend money on advertising in the Granite State -- Romney’s campaign spent $554,040, and Texas Representative Ron Paul’s spent $298,220, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG.
Exit polls showed Huntsman’s base of support was largely outside the Republican Party. Among voters unaffiliated with political parties who took part in the primary, 47 percent of all who voted, 23 percent backed Huntsman, compared with 11 percent of Republicans, according to data compiled by CNN.
The survival of his candidacy is another illustration of New Hampshire voters’ tendency to defy convention. In the 2000 Republican Party primary, Arizona Senator John McCain defeated then-Governor George W. Bush of Texas to extend the race, and in the 1984 Democratic primary, former Senator Gary Hart of Colorado upset former Vice President Walter Mondale.
Romney’s campaign downplayed the threat from Huntsman.
“Jon Huntsman spent six months in New Hampshire,” former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu told CNN last night. “If you put a campaign strategy based on that, it will take him 25 years to do all 50 states. I don’t think Jon Huntsman is any kind of a threat to Mitt Romney.”
A Centrist Appeal
Huntsman also could attempt to become the self-styled compassionate conservative in the race, presenting himself as a unifier in the same vein as the last President Bush and Obama, said Matthew Dowd, former chief Bush campaign strategist and now a Bloomberg political analyst.
“He could become that voice that says we need to work together to get stuff done,” said Dowd. “He’s the guy that wants to bring the country together. Everyone else is polarizing.”
It’s a message that helped sway Fergus Cullen, a political consultant and former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, who decided to support Huntsman only after seeing him at last Sunday’s debate.
“He’s a mainstream conservative, not an extreme conservative,” Cullen said in an e-mail to friends and colleagues. “There are only two candidates who are capable of winning a general election by appealing to swing voters and not just the base - Huntsman and Romney - and I’m going with Huntsman.”
General Election Assets
To be sure, his appeal to independents goes only so far in a Republican primary, where the party’s conservative base holds greatest sway. The ability to attract a broader support base would be an asset in a general election.
While only 4 percent of Democrats participated in last night’s Republican primary, Huntsman won 41 percent of them, the exit polling showed. He won a quarter of those identifying themselves as moderate or liberal.
“I just really hope people will be able to see he is a sincere candidate and he has the international experience people are looking for,” said Laura Scafati, a 23-year-old accountant, who supported Obama in 2008 and backed Huntsman in New Hampshire.
“If it’s Mitt Romney versus Obama, I’ll probably choose Obama,” Scafati said as she was waiting to hear from Huntsman. “I don’t feel sincerity from Mitt Romney, I feel like he’ll say anything to win the election.”