As his Republican rivals blitz Iowa, underdog White House hopeful Jon Huntsman is pinning his hopes on New Hampshire, touting his foreign policy experience, especially in China.
“There are two nations on the world stage and they will be as far as the eye can see into the 21st century — the United States and China, whether it is economics and trade, or whether it is military security or regional security,” Huntsman told voters at a town hall meeting in the tiny northeastern US state.
The former Utah governor, a Mandarin speaker who served as US ambassador to China, added that “the region and the world will rely on them” — thereby making his expertise in Sino-American relations invaluable.
“That is something I bring to the table that no other candidate has at all,” said Huntsman, clad in a flannel shirt and cowboy boots.
The town hall gathering late Friday was the 134th event Huntsman has hosted in New Hampshire, which holds the first-in-the nation primary on January 10.
It is just the second nominating contest in a long state-by-state battle among the Republican candidates seeking to take on Democratic President Barack Obama in November 2012.
While his rivals duke it out in Iowa, which holds more unruly, socially conservative caucuses one week earlier on January 3, the more moderate Huntsman has bypassed that event and staked his entire candidacy on winning — or at least coming in a strong second or third place — the New Hampshire primary.
His strategy is to beat low expectations here and blast into the next contests, with some media pundits suddenly excited about his chances.
“You come out of New Hampshire with a head of steam, you are established as somebody who can get votes across the board,” Huntsman told AFP.
“Funding comes in. Your organization is strengthened. It’s a whole new world,” he said, adding he believes he can beat former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who holds a huge lead in the polls here.
Huntsman has said that if he does not finish in at least third place in New Hampshire, he will quit the race.
He says if elected, he would attract US manufacturing investment back home from China through tax and regulatory reform, scale back US combat activities, and reduce the US military presence in Europe and much of the world.
But polls underscore the challenge for the former Utah governor.
A Boston Globe poll released on December 25 found Romney solidly leading, with 39 percent of support from likely New Hampshire Republican primary voters, followed by Texas congressman Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tied at 17 percent each, and then Huntsman at 11 percent.
But what keeps Huntsman going is the knowledge that only about a quarter of voters said they had definitively settled on a candidate.
“Huntsman’s only chance is to win New Hampshire,” said pollster Andrew Smith of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
“If he comes in a distant second, he’d be done, because no state beyond New Hampshire is as welcoming of his message.”
With comparatively little money — he had $327,615 in cash on hand compared to Romney’s $14.6 million, according to the latest filings at the Federal Election Commission — Huntsman has yet to run TV ads in New Hampshire.
However, an outside group — Our Destiny PAC — has run a pro-Huntsman TV ad that tells New Hampshire voters: “One state can stop the chameleon” Romney, alluding to his reputation as a flip-flopper.
To boost his chances, Huntsman is holding a blizzard of town hall meetings and other events through primary day. He often brings along family, including his wife of 28 years, Mary Kaye, and their adopted Chinese daughter, Gracie.
Chance Anderson, a 67-year-old undecided voter, said he is more likely to vote for Huntsman because he agrees the next president needs foreign policy experience to help the United States better compete with China.
Anderson was also impressed that Huntsman came to tiny Canterbury, which has a population of 2,279.
“It really made an impression on me that he came here,” Anderson said. “We are hardly the hub of the universe.”