EXETER, N.H. (CBS/AP) — “Ladies and gentlemen, can you feel a little momentum in the air?” asked Jon Huntsman in a crowd of hundreds packed in the Exeter, New Hampshire Town Hall.
The former Utah governor is enjoying a sudden surge in polls. “I have no idea what it is going to mean tomorrow night, but I do know this: we’re going to surprise a whole lot of people in this country.”
No group will shape Jon Huntsman’s political future more than New Hampshire’s independents.
WBZ-TV’s Christina Hager reports
Notoriously late to decide and difficult to poll, roughly 40 percent of the state’s voters is not registered with any party. And election law gives them a prominent role in Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary, a contest in which Huntsman has staked his candidacy on a top-three finish.
Huntsman, unsuccessful in a months-long appeal to traditional conservatives, recently shifted strategy to make an aggressive play for independents. What he says and where he says it now suggests he thinks he’s found a path to relevancy in the race for the GOP nomination.
“We can win voters from the right end of the spectrum and we can get independents and even Democrats and that’s called electability,” Huntsman told WBZ-TV’s Jon Keller. “I think after we see the results (Tuesday) night, we’re going to prove the point of electability.”
WBZ-TV’s Jon Keller spoke with Jon Huntsman
The theme of his primary eve stop was “trust and country”, meant to be a swipe at Mitt Romney’s attack on Huntsman for his service as President Obama’s ambassador to China. “I’m going to put this country way above politics,” he told WBZ.
His rally in Exeter capped a busy day of travel, stopping in six towns from one side of that state to the other. Asked if he’ll keep it up on voting day, he answered, “Yes. We’re never going to say no until we cross the finish line.”
Romney, the New Hampshire front-runner, countered that the Republican who stands against Obama in November shouldn’t be someone who served him as ambassador to China.
Huntsman followed up: “This nation is divided … because of attitudes just like that.”
While Huntsman may be a factor Tuesday, any strategy that depends upon the independent vote is risky at best.
Romney and Ron Paul, the libertarian-minded Texas congressman, have support among unaffiliated voters as well. But it would be a mistake to assume that all unaffiliated voters here are moderates or pure political centrists. Many simply don’t like party labels.
A sampling of the audience at a recent Romney event in Salem turned up unaffiliated voters who leaned toward Romney, Huntsman, Paul, and even Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator whose political career has been driven by social conservatism — hardly a priority for the stereotypical independent.
Cindy Goucher, 42, an unaffiliated voter from Derry, said she liked Romney and Huntsman.
“I’m more of a moderate,” she said, noting her interest in candidates who are more willing to compromise. “I think as Americans, we all need to work together and be flexible, work as a team.”
Huntsman will need a lot of people like Cindy Goucher to vote Tuesday — and to vote for him instead of Romney.
Romney, too, has an aggressive strategy to win over independents that includes mass mailings and holding events in independent strongholds in the southern part of the state, according to adviser Tom Rath.
Huntsman has intensified his attacks on Romney in recent days during campaign stops in moderate strongholds along the seacoast and western part of the state. An outside group, Our Destiny PAC, run by his allies is already running anti-Romney ads across New Hampshire and will expand the advertising campaign this week to South Carolina, which holds the next Republican primary on Jan. 21.
Romney’s poll numbers appear to have fallen slightly amid attacks from virtually all his rivals, but he still held a commanding lead heading into Tuesday’s voting. Huntsman’s numbers, which hovered in single digits for months, have begun to show a moderate rise.
Huntsman received more good news Monday when former state GOP chairman Fergus Cullen greeted him outside a bakery in Dover.
Cullen said only Huntsman or Romney could beat Obama, but that he had decided to support Huntsman for his experience and temperament.
“I like that he’s a positive person,” Cullen said. “He’s not angry… The party can’t give in to its anger.”
The stakes are high for Huntsman Tuesday. He doesn’t need to win, but will struggle to stay in the race if he finishes outside the top three.
“I don’t think that would be in the realm of beating market expectations,” he told The Associated Press recently when asked about a below-third finish.
He planned to spend Wednesday campaigning in South Carolina.
WBZ-TV’s Christina Hager contributed to this report.
(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)