Evan Vucci / AP
Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012 | 2 a.m.
KEENE, N.H. — Mitt Romney is looking more and more like the heir apparent to the Republican presidential nomination, but neither his challengers nor voters are willing to let him ascend to the throne unscathed.
The combination of voters looking for an alternative to Romney and his competitors — chiefly Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum — launching an all-out offensive against Romney’s record leading Bain Capital has created an opening for an unlikely benefactor: Jon Huntsman.
Maybe “unlikely” is too strong a word. After all, Huntsman, the former governor of Utah, has pounded more rural pavement than anyone in New Hampshire, the state on which he staked his political viability. He’s not yet posing a challenge to Romney’s lead — though in a weekend, he has leapt from last to striking distance of second place.
But if Huntsman is going to be able to make anything of this momentum, his next best shot is in Nevada. Not only did the state cough up a hefty cache of coin for Huntsman’s campaign; its independent-minded Republicans are the sort of conservatives Huntsman does best with — and in fact, they have been less committed to Romney in the polls.
But Huntsman’s chances of following up a Granite State surprise with Silver State success depends on Nevadans’ ability to forgive and forget.
Top Nevada Republicans think that incident is water under the bridge, or “ancient history,” as Bob List, former governor and national committeeman, put it.
“I think the one possibility that [Huntsman] would have to pick up some steam in Nevada would be run second or third in New Hampshire and then have a strong showing in South Carolina and a decent showing in Florida,” List said. “It would be difficult but still possible.”
Huntsman hasn’t spent any time in Nevada campaigning and only announced Monday his plans to press on to South Carolina after today’s New Hampshire primary. But the last minute is the crucial one in politics, and there Huntsman’s not really any more disadvantaged than any other candidate running for the second-place slot: Though he’s been on the ground in New Hampshire for months, it’s only in the last few days that people are taking notice of him, and changing their minds.
“I have been thinking of Romney. But I think [Huntsman] might be better,” said Dave Slocum of Harrisville, N.H., after a Huntsman rally Sunday in Keene, N.H.
Huntsman appeals to moderate Republicans, independents and Republicans-turned-independents looking for an alternative. It’s a large population in New Hampshire and Nevada, and one that has been pro-Romney.
But he’s being aided from further to his right, as well.
Gingrich and Santorum have formed an unofficial tag team operation through which they, and the political action committees that support them, are tearing into Romney’s tenure as CEO at Bain, accusing him of destroying jobs and with them, families and communities.
The message appears to be disillusioning some voters — but many of those leaving the Romney camp are turning not to the accusers, but to Huntsman.
The most recent poll from Suffolk University, conducted over the weekend in New Hampshire, showed Huntsman making huge gains — rising from low single digits to an average of 13 percent — as Romney’s numbers sagged from a nation-leading 43 percent to 33 percent, closer to how he was last polling in Nevada. Others candidates did not make significant gains in the poll.
While that’s not enough to claim the lead, it is enough to rattle the current second-place holder in New Hampshire, Ron Paul, whose campaign took on Huntsman’s over the weekend, sending opposition activists to his rallies and flooding the media with statements attempting to discredit Huntsman.
The weekend gave Huntsman a dramatic moment on a national stage. The remaining presidential candidates met for two debates, Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Saturday night the candidates seemed to take too seriously the notion that they were only vying for second place to Romney, laying into each other and leaving the front-runner mostly alone. But by Sunday morning — a 10-hour turnaround from one debate to the next — all had hardened their knuckles for Romney, and Huntsman landed the sharpest blow.
“[Romney] criticized me, while he was out raising money, for serving my country in China. Yes, under a Democrat. Like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They’re not asking what political affiliation the president is,” Huntsman said to Romney. “I will always put my country first.”
“I think we serve our country first by standing for people who believe in conservative principles,” Romney retorted. “Most likely the person who should represent our party running against President Barack Obama is not someone who called him a remarkable leader and went to be his ambassador in China.”
Huntsman waited a beat and then answered calmly and sternly: “This nation is divided because of attitudes like that.”
It was enough to change the minds of the Duggers of Westmoreland, N.H.
“I’ve changed my vote,” Dick Dugger, a registered Republican, said at a Huntsman rally in Keene later that night. “I thought Romney, and I still think he’s going to win. But this is the guy to recognize.”
“I wish he had been active in other states because he’s just not talked about and it’s so frustrating,” his wife Pat Dugger, who is registered independent, added.
But he hasn’t been campaigning anywhere else.
In Nevada, his base of financial backers and the Mormon community — and his stature in the West as a former governor of the state next door — provide an entry point that he can’t replicate elsewhere.
Huntsman may find, however, that his biggest obstacle to gaining traction with Nevada voters is the state’s caucus rules.
Neither Huntsman nor Romney pulls much of their support from die-hard conservatives; in Nevada, there are more such voters than in New Hampshire. Polls show Nevada Republicans vote for the conservative alternative 30 to 35 percent of the time. In New Hampshire, that number hasn’t yet broken 20 percent in any major poll.
Huntsman and Romney do, however, pull support from independents and moderates — and it’s those voters who are vacillating between the two. But those votes are also less prevalent in the Nevada caucus electorate than they are in the New Hampshire primary.
Why? New Hampshire allows independents to vote in party primaries. Nevada doesn’t.