|Jon Huntsman only has about two per cent support among Republicans in national polls [Credit: Thomas Bollier]
Canterbury, New Hampshire - At this hamlet's packed town hall - a small clapboard building made in 1739 - New Hampshire's famous "retail politics" is on full display. After a stump speech, a gaggle of New Hampshirites crowd around former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr to shake hands and ask questions. There's no security, and no rush.
With most of the other Republican presidential candidates barnstorming across the state of Iowa before its caucus on January 3, Huntsman has had the small, northeastern state of New Hampshire to himself for the past few days. Currently, only about two per cent of Republican voters nationwide say they support him, making a strong showing in New Hampshire critical if Huntsman plans to stay in the race.
Huntsman - who served as US ambassador to China before resigning in April 2011 to run for the presidency - has given up on Iowa, with its high proportion of socially conservative evangelicals. Instead, he's focused on New Hampshire, holding more than 140 house parties and town hall events in the state since launching his campaign.
He's a natural politician: at ease wearing cowboy boots and a blazer, taking questions from often long-winded voters, and showing off his wife and several daughters (who've made a name for themselves with their viral YouTube videos and funny tweets).
In New Hampshire, roughly four out of 10 voters, known as "independents", are not officially affiliated with any party. Unlike in many other states, New Hampshire independents can vote in the Republican and Democratic primaries; accordingly, their support can be critical.
And the proportion of independents at Huntsman events seems to be higher than average. Many of them see Huntsman as the only palatable Republican.
To independent Harry Brinser of Nottingham, who said he may vote for Obama in the general election, "Huntsman is the only Republican I would vote for."
Like Brinser, photojournalist and independent Geoff Forester plans to vote for Huntsman in the primary, though not necessarily in the general election. Although Forester disliked how Huntsman responded to a question he asked about Iranian nuclear weapons, he believes Huntsman is "a reasonable, pragmatic person that I could cross the aisle [for], compared to these nutballs [the Republican Party is] offering up".
Another independent, retired systems analyst Mark Barker, describes himself as a pacifist - not something often heard at other Republican candidates' events. He, too, will vote for Huntsman.
Why the independent appeal? It's probably to Huntsman's credit that he's wary of foreign intervention, especially in Afghanistan, and talks little about social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.
"I want to be a president... But you know what's more important than that? Bringing the American people together."
- Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr
And, unlike firebrands such as Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann, Huntsman often stresses what he believes is the importance of bipartisanship. In fact, his stump speech frequently echoes the rhetoric employed by his former boss, Barack Obama, in his 2008 presidential campaign. At the Canterbury town hall, Huntsman said: "I want to be a president that brings us together. I'm gonna say I'm running as a Republican, and I will be a Republican president. But you know what's more important than that? Bringing the American people together."
On foreign policy, Huntsman is cautious, frequently referring to himself as a realist. When asked by Forester about the possibility that Iran might acquire nuclear weapons, Huntsman replied: "I believe that Iran has decided to go nuclear, and I don't think there's much we can do to stop that."
As for the Arab Spring, Huntsman warned against picking sides "until we get greater clarity". He told Al Jazeera that, after Islamist parties' electoral victories in North Africa, "it's too early in Tunisia and Egypt to really know what the outcome is. There's really a lot more to play out."
Nevertheless, Huntsman is a conservative - especially on economic issues. At a homey middle school in Franklin, Huntsman told an older, mostly white crowd of about 60 people that he favours altering federal entitlement programmes to reduce the national debt.
|Republican contender Jon Huntsman, centre, has staked his presidential bid on the primary in New Hampshire [Credit: Thomas Bollier]
He suggested Social Security payments be indexed to life expectancy - starting at age 69 or 70 instead of the current age of 65 - and expressed his support for Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan's plan to eventually privatise Medicare, the federally-run health insurance programme for the elderly.
And at a poorly heated town hall in the town of Deerfield, Huntsman said he was opposed to raising any additional revenue at the federal level, instead proposing that tax loopholes be eliminated, and tax rates subsequently lowered, in order to stimulate growth.
Ideologically and temperamentally, Huntsman is probably closer to former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney than any of the other Republican candidates. Huntsman lacks Gingrich's bombast, Perry's and Bachmann's and Santorum's staunch social conservatism, and Paul's libertarianism.
And with Romney leading polls in New Hampshire by a wide margin, it was not surprising that Romney was the only Republican candidate whom Huntsman mentioned by name in recent town hall events. "He's a good guy," said Huntsman. "But … how can you fix the banks on Wall Street, ladies and gentlemen, if you're the number-one recipient of contributions from Wall Street? It's not going to happen."
Tough road ahead
Huntsman may have strong support from independents, but some registered Republicans are interested, too. John O'Brien was the Hillsborough County campaign coordinator for Herman Cain, before Cain dropped out of the presidential race due to a sex scandal. "That came out of the blue," O'Brien said.
Now, he says his main criterion is conservative intellectual William F Buckley's dictum: "Find the most conservative person that can win." With electability O'Brien's biggest concern, he's looking for a candidate "who's clean", and is strongly considering Huntsman, whom he's seen four times so far.
Perhaps it's a good sign for O'Brien that an opposition researcher working for the Democratic Party, who was attending a Huntsman event, said, "I like him. I think he's a good guy. Hasn't put his foot in his mouth very much."
New Hampshire's demographics may be friendly to Huntsman, but he's still only polling about 10 per cent in the state, behind Romney, Paul and Gingrich.
Huntsman has staked his success on New Hampshire, saying that "in Iowa they pick corn; in New Hampshire, they pick presidents." Accordingly, Huntsman has said he will withdraw from the presidential race if he finishes worse than third place in New Hampshire. Primary day is just over a week away - and, once Iowa votes on January 3, Huntsman will no longer have the Granite State to himself.
Source: Al Jazeera