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Republican chase is on for New Hampshire's independents

Jon Huntsman Jr. and Ron Paul may be trailing, but they have their eyes on the state's pivotal 'undeclared' voters.

December 14, 2011|By Maeve Reston, Los Angeles Times
  • Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. campaigns in Milford, N.H.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. campaigns in Milford, N.H. (Cheryl Senter, Associated…)

Reporting from Bedford, N.H. —  

Standing before a brick fireplace in the home of two New Hampshire independents who backed President Obama in 2008, Jon Huntsman Jr. made a pitch keyed to the politically nonaligned voters in his audience.

The Republican presidential candidate railed against partisan gridlock in Washington, promised that as president he would slash the pay of members of Congress if they failed to balance the budget, and said he would travel around the country "like the Grateful Dead" until he persuaded lawmakers to adopt term limits.

He called for Wall Street reforms, namely scaling down the size of "too big to fail banks." And he touted his work for Democratic and Republican presidents, including his recent stint as Obama's ambassador to China — explaining that he was raised with the philosophy "that you put your country first."

"I don't care whether you're Republican, Democrats or independents," Huntsman told the group in closing. "I need your vote.''

In this rapidly evolving race, the Republican contenders at the front of the pack, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, are devoting much of their time to proving their conservative credentials, particularly to members of their party in Iowa and South Carolina. Huntsman has been trying a different tactic in New Hampshire — broadening his message to target the state's "undeclared" voters, who make up 40% of the electorate and are eligible to vote in the state's GOP primary Jan. 10.

Those voters have long played a pivotal role in the state's first-in-the-nation primary, bringing a more moderate tinge to the GOP electorate and making New Hampshire's contest an early test of a candidate's general election viability.

They added an unpredictable twist to the 1996 Republican primary, helping Patrick J. Buchanan win narrowly over Bob Dole by splintering their votes among the candidates. In 2000 and 2008, they consolidated behind John McCain, helping him pull off an 18-percentage-point victory over George W. Bush and then defeat Romney eight years later by 5.5 percentage points.

Romney, who is counting on a powerful win in New Hampshire to propel him to the Republican nomination, has held a substantial lead among Republican and independent voters in the state for much of this year. But Gingrich's late surge has brought new uncertainty to the race, dragging the former Massachusetts governor into what promises to be a bruising fight over who would be the more principled crusader for Republican causes.

While Romney attempts to halt Gingrich's rise, he is also fending off a challenge here from Huntsman and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who have demonstrated appeal to New Hampshire's independent voters as well as to some Republicans.

In a WMUR Granite State poll released in late November — just as Gingrich was beginning to cut into Romney's margins among Republican voters — Paul was siphoning off the support of 16% of the New Hampshire voters who are not aligned with either party. Huntsman was drawing the backing of 13%, finding particular favor with independents who lean Democratic. Nearly two-thirds of New Hampshire's undeclared voters said they had yet to settle on a Republican candidate.

Paul has built a loyal following in the "Live Free or Die" state with his calls for reining in the power of the federal government, his outrage over infringement on civil liberties in the post-Sept. 11 era, and his opposition to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Paul, who won 7.7% of the vote in the 2008 New Hampshire primary, has more than doubled that support in New Hampshire this cycle — climbing to 17% in a recent CNN-Time magazine poll.

Huntsman's progress has been incremental. He drew just 8% in the recent CNN-Time poll after holding 114 events in New Hampshire. But because the former Utah governor is not competing in Iowa, he will be able to devote virtually all of his time to New Hampshire over the next month, just as voters are beginning to pay more attention. Coming to his aid is an outside group funded largely by his father that has spent more than $1 million — big money in New Hampshire — on television ads to boost his name recognition.

Though Paul's support is believed to be fairly stable here, "there's a potential for Huntsman to eat away at Romney's margins among undeclared voters, especially those voters who could be turned off if things get negative," said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. "Now is the time when the ice is going to break a bit in terms of voters making decisions."

Huntsman's crowds have been growing in recent weeks at events like the house party this month at the Bedford home of Don and Melinde Byrne. There were more than a few independents in the crowd, like Dianne Bzik of Bedford, a past Obama supporter who is looking for a possible alternative.

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