MANCHESTER, N.H. – Jon Huntsman’s come-from-behind, third-place finish in New Hampshire Tuesday earned him cheers from his supporters, a ticket to South Carolina and a closer look from the news media and American voters.
But given the treacherous landscape he faces as the marathon race for the Republican presidential nomination swings south, it will be a tough challenge for him to chart a path to victory. New Hampshire upstarts like him such as John McCain in 2000, Pat Buchanan in 1996, Paul Tsongas in 1992 and Gary Hart and 1984 have a way of wearing down withering as the competition gets to larger states where big money and organization count more than retail politics, which Huntsman does well.
“It will be very difficult,” said Theo Groh, 21, a Huntsman voter and junior at St. Anselm’s College in Manchester.
Groh, one several hundred Huntsman supporters who packed a downtown night spot Tuesday evening to cheer their candidate’s good showing here, said South Carolina is too conservative for the low-key, middle-of-the-road message of trust and confidence the former two-term Utah governor carries.
But Huntsman bills himself as an American optimist. He believes voters respond positively to his appeal, as they did in New Hampshire, once he gets them to sit down and listen. So given his finish ahead of rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, he is eager to battle on in unfamiliar territory where his bankroll is small and the odds are long.
“My confidence in the system is reborn because of the people of New Hampshire,” he said in his third place victory speech Tuesday night. “Here we stand with a ticket to ride and to move on, ladies and gentlemen. Here we go to South Carolina!”
Not one to waste time, Huntsman has a rally scheduled Wednesday at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where voters are more moderate than in other parts of the Palmetto State. But he plans a full-scale South Carolina assault over the next 10 days.
Up to now, Huntsman has toiled in near-obscurity. He entered the race for the GOP nomination last June with a splashy announcement speech standing in Liberty Park, N.J., with the Statue of Liberty in the background. It was the same backdrop used by Ronald Reagan when he launched his fall campaign for the presidency in 1980.
The news media, spurred on by anonymous White House sources, quickly billed Huntsman as the man President Obama most feared running against because of his apparent appeal to moderate and independent voters. Moreover, some analysts noted, Obama appointed Huntsman to be his ambassador to China, making him that much more difficult for the president to attack, lest his choice look like a mistake.
But after given star billing, Huntsman quickly faded into the woodwork. Conservatives such as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Gingrich, the former House speaker, quickly stole the spotlight. He faded, thanks in large part to his inability to say anything memorable or show any oomph in the 13 televised debates that strung out from August to December. At the same time, the media, which once billed him as the fair-haired boy, left him flat.
Unable to rise above three percent in most national polls, Huntsman, running short of money, abandoned his campaign in Iowa and focused on New Hampshire and its more-moderate electorate.
But even here, Huntsman was slow to catch on, never polling in double digits until last month, when voters here began to pay more attention to him and he seemed to hit his stride. In the final days before the vote, he campaigned with his wife Mary Kaye with the fervor of a frontrunner. The photogenic couple barnstormed from rallies to town-hall meetings to meet-and-greet sessions in everyplace from colleges to bakeries to diners, drawing bigger and bigger crowds and a huge scrum of TV cameras.
In the end, it was good enough for 17 percent of the New Hampshire GOP vote, 23 points behind Romney, who can smell a possible wrap-up of the nomination after Florida’s primary on January 31.
But third place here means that Huntsman is going to get another look. And that look will compare him to Romney, another Republican who has been criticized by rivals for being too moderate. How that will play out is unclear. It could slow Romney’s momentum.
Some Huntsman voters such as Shelly Martel, 36, a pharmaceutical technician in Manchester, N.H., think that when South Carolina voters take that second look, they will like what they see.
“He talks at your level and sticks to his positions,” she said. “He’s very stable.”
But Groh, the college student who voted for Huntsman, thinks it might be too little too late: “New Hampshire should have been his state.”
Indeed, it should have been. A second place finish here over Ron Paul not only would have added more muscle to his refined message of restoring trust to the American political system, but also would have given him the image of a giant killer. The diminutive-but-aggressive Paul would have been forced onto the defensive in South Carolina. Instead, he goes in with his bluster intact, able to drown out the more-refined pitch by Huntsman.
Attracting the kind of money Huntsman needs to go head-to-head with Romney doesn’t seem to be in the cards. The Romney train has left the station and is rolling toward the nomination. Huntsman’s best hope is a place next year in the Romney administration, should that come about. If not, there’s always 2016. Nice try.
Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund For American Studies program at Georgetown University.