After New Hampshire, Will Huntsman Finally Rise?

The former ambassador surged in the early primary state to challenge Mitt Romney for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination.

Jon Huntsman’s promise to “put country first” appears to have resonated with conservative and independent voters. The former Utah governor surged to third place with 17 percent of the vote in New Hampshire’s first in the nation primary, meeting rather than beating “market expectations,” as he put it, but proving that his campaign is viable.

Huntsman, who was mired in single digits in preelection polls for months, built momentum ahead of the vote on Tuesday after criticizing the frontrunner and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney for “putting politics before country.”

Romney had attacked Huntsman for serving as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China while the other candidates were working to oppose the Democrat’s agenda at home. Huntsman would have nothing of it. “This nation is divided,” he said during a televised debate on Sunday morning, “because of attitudes like that.”

The Huntsman campaign capitalized on the applause line with advertisements that touted his willingness to serve his nation even if it was for a president of the other party. Romney’s lead shrunk mildly but he still won with nearly 40 percent of the vote. After contesting first place in Iowa, where Romney hadn’t actively campaigned, his nomination seems just as inevitable as it did a week ago.

If Huntsman is to challenge him, he will have to do well in South Carolina. The southeastern state that is next in the primary contest is considered very conservative although its Republican governor was elected with just 51 percent of the vote in 2010. She has endorsed Mitt Romney for the nomination but her approval rating has plummeted to 34 percent in recent surveys.

44 percent of South Carolinians identify as Republicans but the state is also home to a sizable body of independent voters who are able to participate in the primary election on January 21. In New Hampshire, Huntsman was by far the favorite among moderate and liberal voters. This, he argues, proves that he’s more electable than the other contenders. “We’ve actually got to convince people who supported Barack Obama last time to support us if we’re going to win the presidency,” he said Tuesday.

Romney is ahead in the polls in the first Southern primary at 36 percent with former House speaker and native Georgian in second place at 24 percent. Texas governor Rick Perry and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who rivaled Romney for first place in last week’s Iowa caucuses, both hope to appeal to the state’s evangelical voters and social conservatives while libertarian congressman Ron Paul, who came in second in New Hampshire, further splits the vote with his isolationist foreign policy and advocacy of limited government.

Huntsman is stuck at the bottom of the polls in South Carolina but they have been volatile for the last couple of months there. Gingrich once polled over 40 percent while Santorum only surged to 20 percent after his Iowa victory in early January. Gingrich’s demise has been similarly dramatic in Florida where he once touched 45 percent only to drop below Romney’s support in recent weeks who has been at 30 percent for more than six months.

Florida’s primary on January 31 is the first that is closed to registered Republicans and all of the state’s fifty delegates to the convention in Tampa in August will be awarded to whoever comes in first. Iowa’s, New Hampshire’s and South Carolina’s delegates, by contrast, are distributed proportionately among the top tier candidates.

Nevada’s caucuses in early February will also be closed to registered Republicans. Romney carried the state with an absolute majority when he ran for the nomination in 2008. The Mormon population in Nevada could help either Huntsman or Romney, both members of the church that’s headquartered in Salt Lake City.

Huntsman, who governed in neighboring Utah between 2005 and 2009, polls in single digits in Nevada and would have to convince right-wing voters that in spite of his nonconfrontational style and support among centrist voters, he is truly one of them. He certainly governed as a conservative in Utah where he implemented a flat tax and brought the unemployment rate down to an historic 2.3 percent.

In terms of party affiliation, Utah is the most Republican state in the country. Huntsman’s popularity there hit 90 percent at times and he left office to become ambassador in China with an approval rating over 80 percent.

If, as expected, Huntsman doesn’t do well in South Carolina’s primary, his nomination probably hinges on claiming first or second place in Florida and Nevada where Romney currently has the advantage in terms of fundraising and organization. Romney’s is the only campaign that is prepared for a protracted nomination battle with activists and offices already in place in states that don’t vote until March. Huntsman doesn’t have much of a presence in South Carolina yet.