Jon Huntsman 2.0: Campaign Focus on New Hampshire

What is the Huntsman campaign's plan for their must-win state?

Sept. 8, 2011— -- Jon Huntsman may have had to compete with Mitt Romney and Rick Perry for the spotlight in Wednesday night's debate, but he distinguished himself as the moderate in the race who might best beat Obama when he challenged Perry in a memorable moment on climate change.

"When you make comments that fly in the face of what 98 out of 100 climate scientists have said, when you call into question the science of evolution, all I'm saying is that, in order for the Republican Party to win, we can't run from science," Huntsman said. "We can't run from mainstream conservative philosophy. We've got to win voters."

He also was able to look like the adult in the room by trying to cut the arguing and bring the conversation back to job creation while hitting the two frontrunners—Romney and Perry—at the same time.

"I hate to rain on the parade of the Lone Star governor, but as governor of Utah, we were the number one job creator in this country during my years of service. That was 5.9 percent when you were creating jobs at 4.9 percent. And to my good friend, Mitt, 47 just ain't going to cut it, my friend, not when you can be first," Huntsman said, referring to strategists—often Democrats—that rank job creation under Romney's time in Massachusetts at 47 out of the 50 states.

Throughout the debate, the former Utah governor and Obama administration ambassador to China, stressed his record specifically on the economy and foreign policy, and his time working for his father's chemical company before he got into politics.

"We've got to remember that to beat President Obama, we have to have somebody who's been in the private sector, understands the fragility of the free market system, has been a successful governor as it relates to job creation, and knows something about this world," Huntsman said.

Next Stop, New Hampshire

Huntsman will be in New Hampshire Sept. 13th through the 16th. He's skipping Iowa, so the Live Free or Die state is his make-or-break state.

His poll numbers are low—the last WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll was in July and had Huntsman's support at two percent while Mitt Romney led with 35 percent. But the poll also indicated that more than 90 percent of the granite state's likely Republican primary voters have not firmly made up their minds.

Last week Huntsman attended the Saint Anselm Institute of Politics "Politics and Eggs" event and Neil Levesque, the director of the Institute, said it was successful and believes the needle is starting to move for the campaign.

A source close to the campaign stresses they will make sure that—like Wednesday night—Huntsman talks about his record: job creation, health care, tax cuts, not to mention distinguishing himself from his rivals and lumping Romney and Perry together on the issues.

"There is enough time for New Hampshire voters to understand exactly who he is. They don't know anything about his pro-life, pro-growth, pro-gun record, that combined with a global understanding of the world and his record of a job creator is a big package that we have to present to voters in New Hampshire," the source close to the campaign told ABC News.

The Huntsman campaign has the largest paid staff of anyone in the first primary state -- about 20 people -- which is by some New Hampshire strategists' count the largest staff of any primary campaign ever. So what's their plan?

Last week they replaced their state campaign manager with former Tim Pawlenty state campaign manager, Sarah Crawford Stewart. Stewart was John McCain's deputy campaign manager in 2008 and also helped lead McCain to victory in 2000 in the New Hampshire primary against George W. Bush.

Huntsman is also holding his first town hall in the state next week, courting voters in Henniker on Sept 13. He's taken questions from voters at retail stops and house parties, but this is his first town hall, something candidates must do if they want to win the state.

The campaign stresses that even savvy voters are not paying attention until after Labor Day, saying that's when the "real campaign season starts."

New Hampshire voters, says campaign spokesperson Michael Levoff, "are moderate, independent, even center right. Probably the most common thing people are upset with is what's going on in Washington and they want to select someone in the primary that can beat Obama in November," Levoff said.

According to Levoff, Huntsman will be on the ground "very often, more often than anywhere else." When he's not in the state, "expect part of his family or his wife will be here, they will switch off."

"We are going to cover every county, every town," Levoff added.

It's not just Huntsman and his family. "We have more people. Our field people go to community events and there are no representatives from another campaign, it's just us...We get to reach out to people exclusively," Levoff said.

Levoff chalks the large staff up to the "importance of the state for us. It is the front line of the Huntsman campaign" and says their lack of big endorsements in the state (they only have six state representatives on board) is because "a lot of the people we have been speaking to, they have always indicated they are waiting to the fall to make a determination."

A fall re-start may be the strategy, but political observers on the ground see missteps and a lack of a focused message.

Mike Dennehy, a longtime GOP strategist who also worked on McCain's successful 2008 primary win, but plans to remain unaffiliated this cycle, says, "Jon Huntsman is a bit of a mystery" because of what he sees as a shifting strategy and "a lack of a focused message."

"At this point Jon Huntsman has thoroughly confused the New Hampshire voter," Dennehy said. Dennehy added if he were running the campaign he would "slash the staff in half" and recognize there is a problem with the campaign.

"He's been in the race for four months," said Dennehy. "Tim Pawlenty realized there is a problem and dropped out...They need to assess the problem and fix it or get out."

Others see it differently though.

Levesque said that despite the low poll numbers, he sees the campaign as "targeting individual voters from across the spectrum" instead of putting them in a conservative or moderate camp.

"The people at 'Politics and Eggs' are experienced activists. Many have heard future presidents speak and I thought it was telling they were impressed by his speech," Levesque said.

Andrew Smith is the pollster who heads up the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. He does not expect the next poll from WMUR/UNH to be out for several weeks but said the Huntsman campaign should definitely buy air time in the state.

"You can buy some love by spending money on TV ads, boost name ID, boost the number of people who will vote for you in the polls, then you can tell your fundraisers, 'Hey, we are really cooking in New Hampshire,'" Smith said.

The campaign says they will be curious to see the next poll, but the source close to the campaign says it will not change their strategy one bit: "Slow and steady wins the race here in New Hampshire. You have to go to the small towns, talk to people in their living rooms, have coffee one on one."

Smith stressed that the campaign should turn to its New Hampshire local staff, like Stewart, and make sure they are running the show, but still he's not convinced Huntsman is even in it to win it.

"People get in the race for a lot of reasons. It may be they don't think this is their moment, but they want to boost national name recognition to get a cabinet position or be a person people think about in 2016 if you assume Obama is re-elected," Smith said.

ABC News' Sarah Kunin contributed to this report.