Jon Huntsman answers a question from the media before driving away from… (Matthew Cavanaugh / Getty…)
Reporting from Hampstead, N.H. —
After a well-reviewed debate performance that included a sharp exchange with Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman is in the drivers' seat. Literally.
Huntsman was behind the wheel of his own SUV on Sunday afternoon as he left a stop at an overcrowded coffeehouse in Hampstead, where he claimed to be the candidate with the big mo' 48 hours before New Hampshire voters head to the polls.
"We're moving in a direction that nobody would have predicted even a few short days ago," he told reporters in a scrum outside Bean Towne Coffee House. "You're seeing a market-mover right here, no question about that. The numbers change with each passing hour, they're moving up and up and up. We'll get back later on and find out they're different than they were this morning."
Huntsman has staked his political livelihood on a strong showing in Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary. But most polls have shown Romney with a dominant, double-digit advantage, leaving the rest of the field to battle it out for second.
Huntsman won't say he's fighting for anything less than first. And he is making the most of a clash with Romney in a pair of debates in the past 24 hours over Huntsman's service as ambassador to China under President Obama.
In Sunday morning's NBC News/Facebook debate in Concord, N.H., Huntsman referred to a Romney attack the night before in which Romney charged that, while the rest of the GOP field was out supporting their party's candidates at home, Huntsman was praising Obama as his ambassador to China.
"I was criticized last night by Gov. Romney for putting my country first," he said Sunday morning. "He criticized me -- while he was out raising money -- for serving my country in China, like my two sons who are in the United States Navy. ... I will always put my country first. I think that's important."
Huntsman, who by now had ditched his suit and tie in favor of a leather bomber jacket, was asked here whether he found his voice in that moment.
"I put my country first. Apparently Mitt Romney doesn't," he responded. "He's got this bumper sticker that says ... 'Believe in America.' How can you believe in America when you're not willing to serve America? That's just phony nonsense."
"So I say, I served my country. I step up when my president asks and I always will. That's part of my philosophy. I know that may be hard for Mitt Romney and some people to take. But most of America is with me."
Huntsman said that in the final hours before Tuesday's primary he would aggressively make his case to the voters.
"We're going to barnstorm this state as we have been doing for months, moreso than any other candidate," he said. "We're going to remind people that the underdog is out there, the underdog that can change this country. But in order for the underdog to perform at the top, we need the help of the people."
Polls have shown Huntsman doing best among the independent voters who can vote in the Republican primary, something that was not the case in Iowa's caucuses. And he continued to court those voters today.
"I'm encouraged by people who are putting forward real ideas in the Republican Party. And we need that more than we need theatrics," he said. "We are insane when we stand up and light our hair on fire, when we engage in political theatrics and sound bites."
It's a message that has resonated with voters like Gene Schneider of Atkinson, a Republican who backed Romney in 2008 and had contributed to the former Massachusetts' governor's campaign again this time before switching to Huntsman.
"I thought Romney moved, without conviction, to the right to pander to the voters," he said. Though Huntsman is not as conservative as he might like, Schneider said he "has been what he's been," and would be more electable than Romney.
Schneider said he didn't think Huntsman could win Tuesday, but hoped he could come in a strong second place to continue on to the next round of earlier states.
"This is New Hampshire, and New Hampshire has made a difference in the past. If New Hampshire says Huntsman's the man, a lot of other people are going to wake up," he said.