EXETER, NH - On the eve of the New Hampshire primary Jon Huntsman took to a platform surrounded by over 300 supporters, and wearing a United States Navy leather jacket, the GOP contender rounded off 170 public events at the very site where he first kicked off his presidential efforts last June.
A rarely hyped up and excited Huntsman called out to his supporters, "Are we ready to rock and roll tomorrow?! We are ready to rock and roll!" Tuesday night's rally offered spectators a different side of the governor and former ambassador. Over the last two days, it's as if the world remembered that he was running, with an ever-increasing media swarm and huge turnouts to his events. The campaign calls it 'Hunts-mentum'.
Up until the New Year, Huntsman's campaign stops took on a rather understated tone compared to that of other presidential hopefuls. Mostly town halls, Huntsman usually gives a 30-45 minute speech discussing what he calls the nation's deficits - the economic deficit and the deficit of trust. He then entertains comments and questions from the audience, giving very in-depth and often lengthy answers to questions on everything from foreign policy to jobs to health care. Fireworks, if any come from attendees wanting to know how the governor matches up against the other candidates.
Huntsman made it clear on a daily basis that he's not into the theatrics of politics, often saying that he won't contort himself into a pretzel or light his hair on fire. Huntsman was convinced that it would be his message and ideas that would propel him forward. But one had to wonder how a mild-mannered politician could break through a political race branded by big personalities. Well if the last two days are any indication, Huntsman's managed to do it with tons of hand-shaking and repetition of message.
Early on, ABC News asked him if he had the personality to make his mark in New Hampshire.
"Well we did just great as governor of a state reelected with 78 percent of the vote. People saw us for who we are, as a leader." Huntsman said. "Once people get to know you better and understand your style and your approach to getting things done, I think they'll like it. I have no doubt about that."
Tonight in Exeter, Mary Kaye introduced her husband, telling the story of a wooden egg, her "secret, lucky charm" that Jon Huntsman gave her at a 'politics and eggs' breakfast at Saint Anslem's College. Written all over the egg: 'I love you'. She's been carrying it around New Hampshire since they started campaigning in the Granite State.
Arguably, Mary Kaye has been the hardest working wife on the trail, stumping for her husband at nearly every town hall. Introducing him to voters as the 'fantasy candidate' and the hidden secret in this race that people who may not have been attracted to him at first, are now taking a second look.
"We've outworked everybody," Huntsman told the crowd in Exeter. "And you know what? To the people of this state, they don't want to be told for whom to vote and they sure don't want the establishment teeing up the same old people. They want a new generation of leadership. A new generation of energetic leadership that's going to get the job done."
Huntsman has continually said that it will be market expectations set by the media that will determine what a successful outcome in New Hampshire is. But Huntsman himself has played a role in carving what the market expectations are - branding himself as 'the underdog' in the race. Having poured all his resources - time and money - into the state, if he fails to place reasonably in tomorrow's first in the nation primary, it could mean the end to what, up until the last two weeks, has been an uneventful and relatively timid campaign.
Attending his events, there is no doubt that he has support. As Mary Kaye often reminds people, supporters from across the aisle always refer to him as the Republican they could vote for. And she's not lying. At an event in Meredith, NH back in December, a supporter said, "You are the most sane Republican that I have seen!" to which the room responded with cheers and applause. Last night in Keene, a young woman who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 spoke of her dissatisfaction with the current administration and promised that if he made it to the general election, Huntsman would have her vote.
And this is what Huntsman hopes will help push him forward: electability, and billing himself as the only candidate in the GOP field who can beat Barack Obama.
Kicking off his 'Restoring Trust' tour in Pelham, NH, Huntsman said, "Here's the rap on me. They all say, 'gee that Huntsman guy, he can win the general election' and I believe that to be the case. I can win the general election. But can he get through the primary phase?"
Huntsman told those gathered, "We're gonna prove that point right here in New Hampshire."
If Huntsman finishes second or even third it will prove to be the market moving event he's been waiting for, and 'Hunts-mentum' could prove to be real. But even a successful finish won't mean smooth sailing for the candidate. To date, Huntsman has failed to qualify for the ballot in three states: Virginia, Illinois and Arizona.
Following Sunday's NBC debate where Huntsman addressed Romney's attack on him for serving as ambassador to China under Obama, Huntsman has taken his "country first" response, and along with "restoring trust," has made that the driving messages of his campaign.
Tonight he gave the responsibility to New Hampshire voters.
"I don't know about you, but we've gone from one end of this state to the other and every stop along the way, I hear the same thing: 'something is happening out there. Something is happening!' I have no idea what it is going to be tomorrow night but I do know this - we're going to surprise a whole lot of people in this country."
On Tuesday we'll know whether or not his message will translate into real votes. Huntsman has definitely showed that he is willing to shake every hand and answer more questions than any of his fellow contenders.
"As you're working tomorrow I want you to remember that word trust," said Huntsman. "Because if there was one word that summarized everything that we're trying to do, everything is trust. That's what this movement is about. That's what this campaign is all about. And I believe that trust word is going to take us all the way to the finish line tomorrow night."