CONCORD, New Hampshire
New Hampshire is a state that takes politics seriously, none more so than at the local level. Serving in the legislature is considered a civic duty, and those elected consider it an honor. They're certainly not in it for the money. New Hampshire has a part-time legislature that pays members of the House a nominal annual salary of $100.
The House was in session Wednesday, and as is customary in the state that has the nation's first presidential primary, candidates were invited to make a brief address. Several Republicans have already done so. Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann all took the opportunity earlier this year to address the largest state legislature in the country. Today it was Rick Perry and Jon Huntsman's turn.
Governor Perry was the first to speak, delivering a fiery speech that capitalized on many of his campaign talking points, most pointedly the need to reform Congress.
"Today's Washington politicians have acted like Black Friday consumers, engaging in a spending spree that puts our children's future on lay-a-way. Their motto is ... we buy now, they pay later."
Perry proposes making Congress a part-time legislature, much like New Hampshire and his home state of Texas, changing the system through a constitutional amendment.
"Like you I come from a state with a citizen legislature. We meet for 140 days every other year and we manage to get our work done, do the work of the citizens of the state of Texas and go home and work and live under those laws."
However, the US Constitution is not easily changed. Adding an amendment requires the support of 2/3 of both houses of Congress and ratification by the legislatures of 3/4 of the states. There has only been 33 proposed amendments in the nation's history, and of those only 27 have been added to the document crafted by the founding fathers.
Standing before portraits of Washington, Lincoln and Pierce, Perry said the need to reform Washington is the reason he decided to run for the White House.
"I wouldn't be running for president if I thought all was well in America today. In fact, I'm running because the promise of our founders is currently being wasted by Washington."
The Texas governor also waded into one of the most controversial issues facing New Hampshire.
"If you pass into law a 'right to work law' you may join my home state and take over the title of the state that's creating more jobs in America than any place in this country."
The statement drew the kind of partisan display usually reserved for the State of the Union. Republicans stood and cheered, democrats stayed firmly seated and union supporters in the gallery loudly booed - a raucous display rarely seen in the usually staid State House.
"Listen, I want to be very clear about something," said Perry after the noise died down. "Unions have their proper role in America but you shouldn't be forced to join one to feed your family. It should be your choice."
Jon Huntsman's speech was a little more congenial and he emphasized his commitment to New Hampshire and the primary process, noting he has held 112 public events and visited every county in the state.
"I'm speaking more and more with a New Hampshire accent," said the former Utah governor. "I love a state that loves its guns - and with a name like Huntsman I say we stand a pretty darned good chance."
Huntsman has been working hard, shaking as many hands as possible and has seen his national poll numbers hit double digits. He trumpeted his economic achievements in turning Utah around, saying he cut taxes, added jobs and tripled the state's rainy day fund.
Huntsman echoed Perry's sentiments that Washington is broken, but believes Congress can be reformed without a constitutional amendment.
"I believe that Congress needs term limits. I believe that there's something called incumbency that gets very strong over the years and it makes it almost impossible to freshen up the system."
Huntsman pointed to the all-time low favorability numbers for Congress as an indication the public has lost faith in the institution, and said the next president of the United States needs to tackle two deficits, one economic and the other trust. As the former US Ambassador to China, Huntsman said he has unique perspective.
"You look from 10,000 miles away at this country and I can tell you folks ... we are in a funk. We as people are dispirited, we are in a hole and this is not a natural place for the most optimistic, blue sky, problem solving, can-do people that the world has ever known. And I say we have to get out of this hole that we're in and we're not going to do it until we address these two deficits, one economic and one trust."
Both Perry and Huntsman trail far behind front-runners Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich. New Hampshire voters are paying attention but candidates hoping for a strong showing in the important 'First in the Nation' primary have just 41 days to convince Granite Staters they're the best candidate for the job. Jon Huntsman perhaps summed up what both men need in these final weeks before the primary.
"I'm coming here asking for a very simple thing," he said. "I want your vote."