Huntsman Banks on Contrarian New Hampshire to Boost Lagging Bid
Kathy DePasquale says she hasn’t ruled out voting a second time for President Barack Obama. Yet first the New Hampshire independent plans to pull a lever in the nation’s premier primary contest for Jon Huntsman Jr., the Republican she sees as the clearest-headed alternative.
“He exudes a certain confidence in his own beliefs that we’re looking for, without being extreme, like so many of the other Republicans who are running,” said DePasquale, 70, an antiques dealer from Acworth.
Voters like her are drawn to Huntsman campaign events in New Hampshire, where Democrats disenchanted with Obama mingle with fiscally conservative independents dismayed with other Republican options. Statewide polls show Huntsman -- who barely registers in national Republican primary surveys and lags in polling here -- is best-liked and draws his strongest support among those who identify themselves as Democrats, followed by independents and those who claim no loyalty to either party.
That may seem a dubious distinction in a Republican race. Still, in New Hampshire, where voters prize their influence in presidential races and those who aren’t registered with either party can choose which primary to participate in right before they cast a ballot, courting the political center may be a winning strategy.
“Everybody needs a place where they can park themselves politically, and with the disenchantment with President Obama and many who felt that they threw their vote away last time, they’re looking for an alternative,” Huntsman said in an interview Oct. 21. “We’re going to bring a whole lot of people on board from across the political spectrum.”
‘Winning New Hampshire’
Pressed on whether being a Democrat’s favorite Republican is a prudent primary strategy, Huntsman said, “A good primary strategy is winning New Hampshire, and to win New Hampshire you’ve got to bring on board a lot of people, including a lot of Republicans, which clearly we will get.”
It’s Mitt Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts who owns a home on Lake Winnipesauke in New Hampshire who leads in polls of the state’s Republican race. He drew 37 percent in a WMUR Granite State Poll released Oct. 7, followed by former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive Herman Cain with 12 percent and U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas with 9 percent. Huntsman ran fourth with 8 percent, and Texas Governor Rick Perry had 4 percent. The survey’s error margin was plus or minus 5.3 percentage points.
In the state whose slogan is “Live Free or Die,” independent voters have almost legendary status. Yet independents actually are no more influential in the state than they are anywhere else, said Andrew Smith, a University of New Hampshire pollster who directs the Granite State Poll.
New Hampshire’s Myth
“There’s always this myth that’s planted that the candidate who does best among those independents will win,” Smith said. In reality, he said, New Hampshire’s so-called “undeclared” voters and those who register as independents turn out at far lower rates than partisans do in primaries.
“It’s certainly not the voting bloc you want to depend on if you’re trying to win the Republican nomination,” Smith said. “There hasn’t been a candidate in my memory who has won the election because of that bloc of ‘undeclared.’ You win your party’s primary because you do best among your party’s core voters.”
Still, Smith said New Hampshire is fertile ground for Huntsman, since its Republican primary draws voters who are less ideologically driven and more focused on fiscal concerns like taxes and spending than social issues like abortion and gay marriage that motivate Republican voters in Iowa and elsewhere.
“New Hampshire Republican primary voters are more of a northeastern, Rockefeller-Republican group,” Smith said. “And in New Hampshire, people make up their minds at the very end of the campaign, so it’s much more likely to be driven by personality and who you feel most comfortable with than some policy nuance.”
Fergus Cullen, a Republican strategist and former state party chairman, said New Hampshire’s late-deciding, contrarian ways leave an opening for a Romney challenger.
“Somebody will emerge as the principal not-Romney alternative, and when you look at the field, the question is who can do that,” Cullen said. “There’s still an opportunity for Huntsman to emerge as that person, and there’s an opportunity for Perry.”
Based on the Granite State survey, Huntsman will need to make up substantial ground across the board to pose a threat to Romney in New Hampshire. Huntsman won 13 percent support among undeclared voters in the state and 11 percent among independents -- better than his 8 percent standing overall, yet below Romney’s 31 percent among undeclared voters and 29 percent among independents. Even among Democrats, where Huntsman’s support jumped to 25 percent, Romney did better, drawing 35 percent.
Whit Ayers, Huntsman’s campaign pollster, said the candidate’s popularity among 2008 Democratic primary voters could help him emerge as the leading alternative to Romney. Ayers said Perry’s profile as a social conservative is ill- suited to New Hampshire and that Cain lacks the organization to compete there.
“If Perry and Cain both recede, who’s going to be the alternative to Mitt Romney?” Ayers asked. “Given what we know about Republicans in New Hampshire and the power of the independents there, it’s very likely to be Jon Huntsman.”
In the Odd Fellows Hall in Marlow, Matthew Saxton -- one of a few dozen who arrived at the historic clapboard house on a chilly evening to give Huntsman a look -- can see that happening.
“He seems to be level-headed and he’s not speaking only in slogans,” said Saxton, a 54-year-old furniture maker from Alstead.
Saxton, an independent, voted for Obama in 2008 mostly because, he said, he couldn’t bear to support the Republican vice presidential nominee, then-Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. In this campaign, he’s ruled out backing Romney because, he said, “He appears to be able to say anything to anybody, anytime, whether or not it contradicts directly what he’s said or done before.”
“I know I will not vote for the candidates who are talking about the right-wing fanatical things,” Saxton said, gesturing toward Huntsman. He added: “So maybe it’s him.”
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