Jon Huntsman banks on his 'Reagan moment' in New Hampshire (+video)

Jon Huntsman appears to have made inroads with New Hampshire primary voters during a heated exchange with Mitt Romney Sunday. But time is running out.

By , Staff writer

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    US Republican presidential candidate and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman gestures during a town hall meeting in Exeter, N.H., Monday.
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It’s been a long march out of obscurity, but former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. may have found his “Reagan moment” in New Hampshire.

During a famous 1980 debate in Nashua, N.H., candidate Ronald Reagan barked at a moderator who was attempting to shut off the sound, “I’m paying for this microphone, Mr. Green!”  

The audience roared and George Bush, the front-runner, never recovered from that moment, which came to define the challenger as the stronger of the two.

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Now, thanks to a rare flare-up with front-runner Mitt Romney in Sunday morning’s NBC presidential debate, New Hampshire residents are abuzz about a Huntsman outburst. During a Huntsman campaign stop outside Marie’s Bakery in Henniker, N.H., Monday morning, patrons chanted his words: “Country first! Country first!”  

“This is a turning point,” says Wayne Lesperance, a political scientist at New England College in Henniker, who was present at the event and confirms that the chanters were not campaign staff or even typically involved in politics. “Whether it’s too little, too late remains to be seen.”

Huntsman's "my country first" moment began in Saturday night's debate, when Mr. Romney attacked him for serving as US ambassador to China under President Obama

“You were, the last two years, implementing the policies of this administration in China," said Romney. "The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward.” 

On Sunday, Huntsman returned to that exchange at his first opportunity.

“I was criticized last night by Governor Romney for putting my country first,” he said. “He criticized me, while he was out raising money, for serving my country in China – yes, under a Democrat, like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They’re not asking who … [or] what political affiliation the president is. And I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country: I will always put my country first.”

Romney retorted: “I just think it’s most likely that the person who should represent our party running against President Obama is not someone who called him a remarkable leader and went to be his ambassador in China.”

Then, the punch line: “This nation is divided, David, because of attitudes like that,” Huntsman said to the moderator, to applause. 

Sensing a break, the Huntsman campaign late Sunday packaged the debate clip as a TV ad – and raised $100,000 overnight with an Internet appeal to fund it. 

John Weaver, Huntsman's senior strategist, says the exchange will be a key part of the Huntsman campaign going forward. 

“The race is pretty clearly defined now,” he says. “Governor Romney at every level and every opportunity chooses politics first, whether in the expediency of his beliefs or attacking someone who chooses to serve his country.”

“We’re going to drive that point home here in New Hampshire Monday and Tuesday and in South Carolina on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday,” he adds. “We’re going to run out the tape with momentum.”

With 40 percent of New Hampshire voters still undecided, there's room for an 11th-hour surge, says pollster Andrew Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center

But Huntsman will need help from independent voters, who can vote the New Hampshire's Republican primary. Independents propelled Sen. John McCain to victories in New Hampshire’s GOP primary in 2000 and 2008, and independents, in particular, will be open to Huntsman's "country first" message.

“Huntsman’s support is coming from independents and people who are not really Republicans,” says Professor Lesperance of New England College. “For those folks, this country above party thing really resonates. He’s tapped into some frustrations about Washington not being able to get anything done because people are more interested in pushing their party’s position than getting anything accomplished.”

The fact that only Huntsman, Romney and Rep. Ron Paul are running TV ads in New Hampshire “makes it easier for their candidate messages to be heard,” adds pollster Mr. Smith

Huntsman has already driven his approval ratings from near zero to 11 percent during this new Hampshire campaign. “He has some momentum, and might end up at 14 percent,” says Smith.  

But Huntsman still has only token support from mainstream Republican voters. Five percent support of registered Republicans, who account for 60 percent of likely primary voters, say they plan to vote for Huntsman, Smith says.

That means Huntsman is competing with Congressman Paul for the 41 percent of New Hampshire voters who are undeclared, but also eligible to vote in the GOP primary.

Many who attend Huntsman events in New Hampshire say they are impressed by the candidate, but not convinced he can win the nomination or defeat Mr. Obama.  

“I’m leaning Romney because he’s more electable,” says Phil Trussell, a retired insurance agent from Grantham, N.H. “But I hope Huntsman is encouraged enough with his results in this state to continue on.”

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