Jon Huntsman Is Finally Having His Moment in New Hampshire

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After months polling in the single digits, the former Utah governor finally has some traction. He'd better, because the Granite State is his only chance.

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NASHUA, N.H. -- As he drove away from a mob of more than 100 reporters after a campaign stop here on Monday, Jon Huntsman poked his head out the back seat window of his black Chevy Tahoe to assure the press -- and voters -- that he's "not the least bit" nervous going into Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.

If anyone has reason to be nervous as Granite State voters cast their ballots, it's the former Utah governor. More than six months after throwing his hat into the presidential ring and three months after funneling his entire candidacy into a state that has thus far failed to reward him, Huntsman's day has finally arrived.

Huntsman has said he hopes to replicate what Rick Santorum did in Iowa: Rely on a last-minute surge in the state where he staked the majority of his resources to buy him a ticket to the next primary. And if newly rising poll numbers and exponentially growing crowd sizes are any indicator, he's on the right track.

But should Huntsman pull off a first- or second-place finish in the first-in-the-nation primary state, his feat will mark an upset of proportions far exceeding Santorum's. He will have done so without ever having been a "flavor of the week."

Huntsman left his post as President Obama's ambassador to China to tremendous expectations, but could never quite find his footing.

Following his campaign's sputtering launch in June, stained by a misspelled "John" on its first press release, Huntsman did not play the game badly; he merely chose not to play it the same way as his rivals. While other candidates convened in Las Vegas for an October debate, he remained in New Hampshire with a handful of reporters, condemning his opponents' "political theater." Meanwhile, his relatively moderate platform and push for "civility" failed to drum up votes in a political climate that saw the boomlets of enthusiasm of Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain.

It's a status Huntsman and his family continues to embrace. Even on Monday, his crackling voice, tired from 170 stops in the state, boomed through a megaphone to inform several hundred supporters rallying in Concord's Eagle Square that he's "still the underdog -- and I need your vote."

Several days earlier, at a house party in Randolph, N.H., his wife Mary Kaye shared proudly that people of New Hampshire were beginning to recognize her as "Mrs. Underdog." And at that same party, Huntsman's underdog status was validated by an un-candidate-like presence. Delivering the same stump speech -- in the same demeanor -- he would give at a town hall, several attendees tried to interrupt him. "Uh, just let me finish," Huntsman stumbled.

But on Monday night, Huntsman strutted into the Exeter Town Hall for his primary eve "Restoring Trust" rally -- the same place he launched his campaign for the first-in-the-nation state six months prior -- looking anything but the underdog. What were once crowds of 30 culminated in a 400-person rally, replete with spotlights, U2 walk-up music, confetti, and a renewed invigoration in a campaign that just days earlier was considered all but dead.

"Are we ready to rock and roll tomorrow?" Huntsman asked the roaring crowd with an irrepressible grin. "We are ready to rock and roll."

Image: Jessica Rinaldi / Reuters

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Lindsey Boerma is a staff reporter (politics and policy) for National Journal.

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