What Huntsman Accomplished in New Hampshire

He's not on a glide-path to the nomination, but he enhanced his national stature and visibility while staying true to his principles.

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Jon Huntsman's third-place finish in New Hampshire, with 17 percent of the vote, is being characterized by reporters as "disappointing" and "unremarkable."

I don't agree.

I think he accomplished a lot in New Hampshire for a politician previously unknown on the national stage. He climbed into double digits, broadened his appeal, demonstrated surprising support (42 percent) among those voters who identified themselves in exit polls as Tea Party supporters, improved his style on the stump and actually seemed to be enjoying himself. He even showed a sense of humor here and there.

Huntsman also managed to sharpen his image as a true conservative. He reminded voters that he instituted a flat tax as Governor of Utah, has a strong record as a fiscal conservative and was among the first to voice support for Rep. Paul Ryan's budget plan. No liberal, he.

Most importantly, Huntsman remained true to his principles. "I am who I am," he declared at a rally in Exeter. "I've done what I've done, and you can take a look at my record. I am not going to contort myself into a pretzel. And I am not going to sign any of these silly pledges." Take that, Grover Norquist.

He made no apologies for his more moderate positions on climate change and illegal immigration, in contrast to his more wild-eyed competitors. And he defended his service as President Obama's Ambassador to China, arguing that he was putting his country before party.

Is all this enough to win the Republican nomination? Most likely, no. The contest this week moves to South Carolina, with its greater proportions of evangelical and deep-vein conservatives. That's not Huntsman country. But watch closely, if he continues to make progress in the Palmetto state, Florida is next and significantly more hospitable to his brand.

Also, if Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum succeed in their joint efforts to erode Mitt Romney's image and base, Huntsman will pick up some of the disaffected. He has repeatedly presented himself as the candidate most feared by the Obama campaign. That is true. The Chicago gang doesn't waste much of its time or money on Huntsman because they don't think he can gain enough momentum to win the nomination. Not yet.

Arguably, Ron Paul is Huntsman's biggest obstacle to winning a larger portion of primary votes. Paul's 23 percent in New Hampshire was partially at Huntsman's expense. We will have to see what impact the good doctor has in South Carolina.

A second-place finish in New Hampshire would have caused people to sit up and take notice. But 17 percent is better than one per cent. Just ask Rick Perry.

Presidential primary campaigns have a way of either enhancing a candidate's standing and reputation, or diminishing it. Ronald Reagan was taken more seriously as a national figure after 1976, for example, while Senator John McCain is less of a voice in his party and in the nation after running so badly (and choosing Sarah Palin) in 2008. A candidate goes up or down once he or she joins the fray, but rarely stays the same.

Jon Huntsman has already enhanced his stature. He was little known outside of Utah and Beijing a year ago. Now he and his beautiful family are widely recognized. Even his critics acknowledge his foreign policy expertise. As demonstrated in New Hampshire, Republicans are starting to give him a look. Is that "disappointing," or "unremarkable"? Not at all.

Is it "a ticket to ride?" Yes -- though how far remains to be seen.

Image credit: Adam Hunger / Reuters

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Terence Smith is a special correspondent for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

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