KEENE, N.H.—Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is campaigning “the old fashioned way” in the Granite State with a focus on town hall and retail events at the heart of his final pitch to voters ahead of Tuesday’s primary.
“The national pundits come in and say, ‘Here’s the order of the universe,’” Huntsman told a crowd of a couple hundred at a town hall event at Keene State College Sunday night. “But then the people of New Hampshire say, ‘Not so fast.’”
Huntsman, who is trying to capitalize on a late jolt for his campaign courtesy of a couple solid debate performances is banking on Granite State voters upending the conventional wisdom on primary night. Like former Sen. Rick Santorum in Iowa, the Huntsman camp is hoping months of retail campaign work can cement a late New Hampshire surge.
“This is not a state that wants a coronation,” Huntsman said Sunday.
He has done more than 160 events across the state by his campaign’s count, outworking every one of his Republican rivals here over the past few months. And even though the latest tracking numbers show Huntsman moving in the right direction in the campaign’s final days, his best hope Tuesday appears to be either a solid third place finish or a surprise second behind former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
It’s emblematic of what veteran New Hampshire political observers say is a cycle unlike any in recent memory in New Hampshire. Voters with a history of rewarding the type of campaign Huntsman has run here have been largely disengaged from this year’s contest, and the attempts by most campaigns to bring them in have been meager compared to previous cycles.
“There’s no question the intensity of the race here is much lower than it has been in previous years,” said New Hampshire Republican strategist Rich Killion. “Typically, on the Sunday before the primary there’s this cocoon of intensity surrounding the whole thing. That’s just completely lacking this time.”
Romney, Paul and Huntsman have all put together solid organizations in New Hampshire and are working the traditional campaign route with door-to-door canvassing and sizable GOTV operations, but the extent of the efforts don’t compare to past contests. Romney and Paul, for instance, didn’t even name local and county chairs for their campaigns in the state.
GOP hopefuls have spent plenty of time in the last year looking for media exposure in New Hampshire, said Paul Westcott, the morning drive talk host on Manchester’s WGIR-AM, but he said most have done it from afar. And the griping from longtime observers of New Hampshire politics, and many voters, about the pace of this year’s primary is palpable.
“I hear it every day,” Westcott said. “The seasoned New Hampshire folks are basically calling this the worst cycle they’ve ever been through. The pace you’ve seen over the past few days with candidates holding four and five events each day—that typically starts months in advance.”
In an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader, Republican strategist Michael Dennehy pointed the finger at real estate mogul Donald Trump, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for the odd feel of this year’s primary. Their late flirtation with entering the race and the national media circus that surrounded them kept donors and activists on the sidelines for far too long in the Granite State, he contends.
Monday and Tuesday are packed with a final flood of retail campaign events—Gingrich, Huntsman, Romney and Paul all have breakfast stops on their schedules Monday followed by a full day of town halls and rallies. But the late volume marks a stark departure from the last few months of the campaign here.
Pat Duggar, a Huntsman supporter who has seen her fair share of New Hampshire primaries over her 40 years in the state, said there’s no doubt this one is sleepier than past contests. She’s still trying to pinpoint the reason, though.
“Maybe it’s just too many debates,” she said. As for the lack of excitement surrounding the candidates, Duggar said, “Mitt Romney is winning so far. How can you get excited about him?”