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Can Jon Huntsman really carve out a path to the GOP nomination?

Jon Huntsman, set to announce his presidential bid on Tuesday, will skip the Iowa caucuses and is little-known in New Hampshire, the first primary state. His biggest hurdle: Mitt Romney.

By Staff writer / June 16, 2011

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman speaks at an event hosted by Thomson Reuters in New York, June 14. Huntsman will announce his bid for the White House next Tuesday, bringing a moderate Republican and expert on America's fastest growing competitor into the race to challenge President Barack Obama in 2012.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters

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Washington

Does Jon Huntsman, who will formally enter the crowded presidential field next Tuesday, really have a path to the Republican nomination?

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The former Utah governor has hired top-tier staff, including former McCain strategist John Weaver, pollster Whit Ayres, and New Hampshire organizer Paul Collins. He has lined up major donors. And he has his own wealth (though he has said he won’t tap into it).

All he needs is voters.

Mr. Huntsman has already announced that he’s skipping Iowa, where the straw poll in August and caucuses in early 2012 will give participants their first tests. That means he has to do well – a top-three finish – in the next contest, the New Hampshire primary. But so far Huntsman is little known in the Granite State, and Mitt Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, is building a formidable lead.

“It’s going to be a very difficult path” to the nomination for Huntsman, says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “He’s going for more moderate voters like you have in New Hampshire. His biggest hurdle is Mitt Romney.”

Mr. Smith’s latest poll of New Hampshire GOP primary voters, taken for the Boston Globe and released June 12, shows Mr. Romney now at 41 percent of likely voters, up from 32 percent in May. Coming in a distant second at 9 percent is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who has not decided yet whether to run. Huntsman, who has done a little campaigning in the state, is at 3 percent, tied with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

The good news for Huntsman – and all the others besides Romney – is that 76 percent of likely Republican voters say they’re not completely settled in their choice. So Huntsman, or someone else, could conceivably knock Romney off his perch. If Romney himself doesn’t do or say something that damages his candidacy, that could be a tall order.

“Romney is a known commodity here, he’s known and liked,” says Smith. “He has by far the highest favorability of any of the candidates in New Hampshire. He may not be ideal, but they’re happy with him.”

So what’s Huntsman’s approach? First he just needs to introduce himself to voters: Like Romney, he has a business background. He governed Utah as a fiscal conservative but is a moderate on social issues. He supports civil unions, but not same-sex marriage. He is, like Romney, a Chamber of Commerce Republican, not a tea party firebrand. Also like Romney, he is Mormon, but has portrayed himself as less devout.

Ford O’Connell, chairman of the conservative Civic Forum PAC, suggests that Huntsman pitch himself, in so many words, as “Mitt Romney but better. I don’t flip-flop, I don’t hedge.”

Romney switched to an anti-abortion stance four years ago when he ran for president. Earlier this month, he bucked conservative orthodoxy by saying that global warming is happening and that humans are contributing, winning the praise of former Vice President Al Gore.

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