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Huntsman supporters look for a breakout in New Hampshire

John Makely / msnbc.com

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman makes a campaign stop in Concord New Hampshire on Monday, January 9, 2012, in Concord N.H.


NASHUA, N.H. – Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is hoping he experiences the Santorum effect here in New Hampshire. 

Huntsman has done the Granite State the "traditional" way, concentrating his campaign on winning Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary, and seeking votes one handshake and kissed baby at a time.

His efforts might finally be paying off. After failing for months to gain much momentum, there are signs voters are moving towards Huntsman, a shift driven by his strong weekend debate performances, a looming primary deadline and undecided voters who are breaking his way late.

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“I’ve done my due diligence on the GOP candidates, and his policies really resonate with me,” said Barbara Morris of Concord, N.H., who said she only settled on voting for Huntsman in the past few weeks.

Morris is just one of the voters in Tuesday’s primary who decided recently for Huntsman. His performance Sunday at the NBC News-Facebook debate on Meet the Press, during which Huntsman forcefully answered criticism of his service as President Obama’s ambassador to China, appears to have driven some undecided voters in his direction. That line of criticism came from Mitt Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, and the leader in polling of today’s primary.

“I listened to the Sunday debate – it was the first once I had listened to – and I was very impressed by his responses for most of the debate,” explained Erin Crowley, of Bedford, who attended Huntsman’s stop in Nashua late Monday afternoon.

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Huntsman supporters cite his temperament and somewhat centrist tone as a reason to vote for the former Utah governor. But they also point to his service as an ambassador – both for Obama and in both Bush administrations – as giving him the kind of foreign policy credentials no other candidate has.

“He’s an American first, because he participated in the Obama administration, and served over in China,” said Marian Towle of Henniker, N.H., where Huntsman stopped on Monday as part of a seven-stop barnstorm of the Granite State. “I like that he’s an American first, and a conservative Republican second.”

Adam Hunger / Reuters

Republican presidential candidate and former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman gestures during a town hall meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire January 9, 2012.

Huntsman also has a degree of crossover appeal – one of the reasons why Democrats had expressed initial misgivings about what a Huntsman candidacy would do for Obama’s re-election prospects.

Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman tells TODAY's Ann Curry that the GOP presidential nominee must be able to steal some votes from President Obama and that he's the man for the job, citing his support from voters across the political spectrum.


“When I post on about Facebook about Jon Huntsman, my liberal friends are like, ‘Yeah, you know, Huntsman’s the only candidate who’s not completely crazy!’” said Sarah Neville, a New Hampshire native on break from Tufts University, and who’s spending part of her break volunteering for Huntsman. “And that’s basically why I support him, because the other ones are just so far out there.”

Other New Hampshireites cite Huntsman’s dedication to the state for his late surge here. While Huntsman had never been expected to compete for Iowa, he had an initial strategy that focused on New Hampshire, South Carolina and Florida – a strategy that was scaled back eventually over the course of the summer to focus only on winning this first primary.

While his efforts have experienced some setbacks, Huntsman appears to have rebounded to a degree. The final Suffolk University tracking poll of the primary showed Huntsman up to third, at 16 percent, and just behind Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who ranks second, at 18 percent.

The campaign here is, in many ways, a race for second since Romney (at 37 percent in the Suffolk poll) seems to enjoy a healthy lead. Huntsman supporters don’t necessarily expect him to beat Romney, but said they’re hoping for a strong enough finish to catapult him out of the state.

“If he finishes second, he’ll be able to attract money and go to South Carolina,” said Bill Mauser, another late-decider for Huntsman, yesterday in Nashua. “If he gets more than 20 percent, that’s a big deal.”

There are also signs that Romney’s lead is weakening. A few voters made reference to Romney’s work at Bain Capital – the subject of tremendous scrutiny for the campaign’s frontrunner – over the last few days as a reason they were turned off to the former Massachusetts governor.

“I think people are starting to read things about Romney and his record – like that thing, the pink slip?” said Ann Willis of Amherst, N.H. “Those kind of comments? I said how far out of touch is he with people with real economic concerns?”

Nonetheless, expectations for Huntsman among his supporters seem pretty clear.

“I would say top three gives him momentum,” said Jim Waddel, a state representative who supports Huntsman, at Monday’s Concord rally. “I would say something in the 20 percent range is going to give him some momentum.”

But some supporters, like Nashua’s Larry Stubbs, have their misgivings.

“I do realize that people have the first vote have the advantage of identifying the key candidates,” speaking about the intense effort Huntsman’s put on New Hampshire. “Hopefully he’s got some strategy for picking up some other states really quick.”

But maybe best of all for Huntsman would be a surprise victory, an unlikely if not impossible scenario given the number of independent voters who could participate in today’s election.

“Most of the independents haven’t decided yet, and I think when it comes down to it, they will vote with their heart and their country in mind,” said Epsom’s John Grant, a supporter of Huntsman’s who thinks the former Utah governor can win today.