Wolfeboro, N.H. — Jon Huntsman may not have officially declared a presidential run, but he’s already a happy campaigner.
Talking at Jo Green’s Garden Café, a restaurant overlooking Wolfeboro Bay, the former Utah governor and ambassador to China gives the upbeat stump speech he’s been using up and down the state, emphasizing economic issues and political civility. He tells the group of voters gathered here that he’d like to come back.
“I hope that we have an opportunity to come back and shake your hand,” he says. “I understand that in this state you have to do it more than once, more than twice, more than five times even.”
Dressed casually in brown corduroy pants and a loose jean jacket, Huntsman easily mingles with the small crowd after his remarks.
Some are impressed by his speech. “I thought he was great. I hope he runs,” says John Day, a retired State Department employee.
“I enjoyed his speech immensely. I thought he put his finger on the pulse of the national mood,” says Steve Schmidt, a New Hampshire state representative, calling the speech’s optimism “almost Reaganesque.”
By campaigning just blocks away from presumed GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney’s vacation home, Huntsman is delivering a message: There’s another Republican heavyweight in town.
Wolfeboro was just one stop on Huntsman’s five-day New Hampshire sweep, a tour meant to introduce him to the state’s Republican voters and, thanks to the mob of media personnel present, to those of the rest of America as well.
He needs the attention. Right now, Atlanta business mogul and presidential candidate Herman Cain has higher name recognition (29 percent) among Republicans than does Huntsman (25 percent), according to Gallup.
The low name recognition benefits Huntsman in one way: It gives him the opportunity to brand himself on his own terms. Take his just-ended 20-month tenure as ambassador to China. For many on the right, it’s worrisome that Huntsman served President Obama in such an important position.
Mike Dennehy, a New Hampshire GOP strategist who worked for the McCain campaign in both 2000 and 2008, notes that if Huntsman wants to win New Hampshire, he has to clarify “where he stands with respect to the Obama administration’s policies because let’s face it, he served in the administration.”
“What New Hampshire Republicans are talking about right now is his relationship with Obama,” Dennehy says. “So once that is put to rest, I think he can then move on and start building a campaign.”
It’s an argument Huntsman has already begun to try to defuse. Delivering the commencement address at the University of South Carolina earlier this month, he told the graduates, “Work to keep America great. Serve her, if asked. I was — by a president of a different political party.”
In his stump speech, delivered at many New Hampshire stops, Huntsman uses his China experience (“the view from 10,000 miles away”) as a segue into comments about the American mood over the economy. Talking about how the Chinese are experiencing “euphoria” and “giddiness” over their economic growth, he notes that the attitude in the U.S. is much more somber: “We’re in a funk.”
But he also points out that there is much in our nation that the Chinese would love to have. Talking about his meetings with Chinese dissidents, he remarks, “They get inspired every time they see the American flag out front of the American embassy . . . because we stand for something that still impacts and influences people overseas.”