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PETERBOROUGH, N.H.--At every stop on Tuesday in the state with the nation's first presidential primary, Jon Huntsman insisted that the opening-gun caucuses being held 1,300 miles away in Iowa were irrelevant. But like so much during the candidate's slow-starting campaign, the words lacked bite. Finally, at a crowded town meeting here, just an hour before the caucuses began, Huntsman hit his mark.
Asked by a voter for a message for the caucus winner, Huntsman replied: "Welcome to New Hampshire. Nobody cares."
Huntsman, far behind Mitt Romney in the polls in this state, has just one week to make voters in New Hampshire care. Blessed with the most varied resume in the GOP field (ambassador to China, Utah governor, a top trade official), the 51-year-old Huntsman crystallized his different-drummer appeal at the town meeting.
"I am who I am," he said. "I am not going to contort myself into a pretzel. I am not going to pander."
Afterwards, Bill Ellerkamp, a retired small businessman, said, "I've heard Romney many times, and I always think he's good, but I have yet to be sold on Mitt. This guy seems more the real thing."
But what is the real thing in presidential politics?
That is the question I wrestled with as I spent two days following Huntsman around New Hampshire and interviewing him in a basement holding room just before the start of the Peterborough town meeting. No candidate can accomplish in the White House precisely what he or she outlines on the campaign trail. Promises are invariably upended by everything from a balky Congress to a sudden crisis like the 2008 collapse of Wall Street. And the elusive quest for authenticity often involves reporters and voters projecting onto candidates qualities that, if they really exist, have little bearing on life in the Oval Office.
Can Huntsman win? The horse-race questions, around which so much campaign coverage pivots, are ludicrous. No one foresaw Rick Santorum coming within eight caucus-goers--enough to fit in a single minivan--of winning Iowa.
Dressed in a blue blazer (which he shed for the town meeting) and a white shirt (whose sleeves were rolled up for the crowd upstairs), Huntsman tried to explain to Yahoo News how his campaign style might translate into the kind of president he would be.
"Hard driving, laser-like focus on achieving the outcome, never say die," he replied in staccato fashion. "I get off to a tough start. I might have challenges along the way. But you stay focused and you keep grinding away to the end point. That's what I did as governor, that's what we're doing in this campaign, and that's what I would do as president."
Huntsman portrays himself as a truth-teller on the budget, a shrewd strategy in a state where deficit hawks dating back to Paul Tsongas--who defeated Bill Clinton here in 1992--have done surprisingly well. I asked Huntsman about a moment in the campaign when he did seemingly pander to Republican voters on taxes. During an August debate in Iowa, Huntsman joined all of his rivals by raising his hand to indicate that he would reject a hypothetical deficit deal in which Barack Obama offered 10 times more budget cuts than tax hikes.
Here in New Hampshire, Huntsman regularly praises the 2010 Simpson-Bowles deficit commission plan that roughly proposed a 2-to-1 ratio of spending reductions to tax increases. Asked to explain the apparent contradiction, Huntsman said apologetically, "It was my first presidential debate, but more than that, it was a question that came via the raising of hands."
So what would he say if the same question were asked at a debate this weekend? "I would say that we must do the work of the people," Huntsman replied with a tight smile.
Huntsman, whose father is a billionaire industrialist, makes an unlikely populist. But the self-proclaimed underdog ("I know New Hampshire loves underdogs," he said Tuesday in Keene) gets the loudest applause in his stump speech for a promise to impose term limits on Congress and his threat to cut the salaries of legislators if they fail to balance the budget. Huntsman never mentions the need for a constitutional amendment in his speeches. Newt Gingrich's 1994 "Contract with America" promised term limits, but that pledge won minimal support from Republicans once in power.
"I can't think of a better way to spend time as president or a better use of the bully pulpit," Huntsman said. "Going around the country and congressional districts that are recalcitrant on the issue and rallying public support for term limits. It is absolutely essential to restoring trust."
The dilemma for President Huntsman would be how to coax Congress to enact his ambitious agenda while he is simultaneously championing a constitutional amendment to shorten their Capitol Hill careers. "Suffice it to say that I would be a president who would not mind expending bandwidth on these trust issues," Huntsman said. 'I think term limits are central to that."
Huntsman is a rarity as a presidential candidate who has served in four different administrations: a 21-year-old in Ronald Reagan's White House; ambassador to Singapore under George H.W. Bush; George W. Bush's deputy trade director; and Obama's Mandarin-speaking ambassador to China. Structural questions about inner workings of the White House are central to the job of a president, but on the campaign trail the topic comes up about as often as agricultural subsidies for kumquats. Yet Huntsman can talk knowledgeably about Nixon's approach to the National Security Council and James Baker's tenure as Reagan's chief of staff, praising "his strong central management of the White House."
Republican debates have often been exercises in saber-rattling as the contenders (with the exception of Ron Paul) vie to strike the most aggressive stance on national security. Here, too, Huntsman cleaves to his own path, calling for a withdrawal from Afghanistan and sharply questioning the need for Cold War relics like American troops stationed in Germany. Describing himself to voters, Huntsman says, "I'm not an isolationist; I'm a realist."
During our interview, I asked Huntsman how as president he would handle ambiguous intelligence information on questions like Iran's nuclear capacity or other national-security threats. "We learned from the Iraq war about intelligence and the importance of basing decisions on real intelligence," he said. "I think that has to be a sharper part of executive decision making." Huntsman's structural remedy would be to return to the days when the CIA was in charge of intelligence instead of reporting to the director of national intelligence as it has since 2005. As he put it, "We have a very diffuse approach to organizing and managing the intelligence community."
Solid, serious and, yes, a bit bland, Huntsman is a candidate who, on paper, fits the demographics of New Hampshire Republican voters. According to the 2008 exit polls, 45 percent of the state's Republican primary voters described themselves as moderates or (yikes) liberals. In contrast, non-conservatives made up only 17 percent of Tuesday's Iowa caucus-goers. It seems like the right state for Huntsman to make his stand, even though he may not fare any better than Wesley Clark--the former NATO commander bristling with foreign-policy experience--did with Democrats in 2004.
New Hampshire is the "Live Free or Die" state. And Huntsman describes himself as a "never say die" candidate. Now that New Hampshire gets its moment, Huntsman will either catch fire or fade away.
Walter Shapiro, a special correspondent for the New Republic, is covering his ninth presidential campaign. Follow him on Twitter at @waltershapiroPD. This is part of a series of Yahoo News columns examining what we know about the character and personalities of the 2012 candidates.
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