NASHUA - Bruce Bradshaw was getting on his bike here on Monday when Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman walked past. Bradshaw, a Methodist pastor, chased the former Utah governor down the street.
“I’m a Democrat, but I’ll vote for you,’’ Bradshaw said.
“We’ll take that,’’ Huntsman said. “Republicans, independents, and Democrats.’’
Huntsman faces a dilemma as he tries to win support in Tuesday’s primary. His rhetoric, and to some extent his record, are more moderate than his Republican opponents’. For example, he supports civil unions for gay couples and believes in the science behind climate change.
But while Huntsman has been successful attracting independent and moderate voters, his moderate reputation has made it difficult for him to attract conservatives, who form the base of the Republican Party.
Lately, Huntsman has been making an effort to portray himself as a conservative candidate, but with limited success.
According to polling, his supporters are almost entirely independent and moderate voters. A Suffolk University/7News tracking poll Thursday found that 12 percent of moderates and 9 percent of liberals supported Huntsman, compared to 3 percent of conservatives. He got support from 1 percent of those who said their values are similar to the Tea Party’s.
Asked about the phenomenon, Huntsman said he knows that a “broad cross-section of the electorate’’ attends his events. “If we have moderate supporters - we even have some Democrats there - that’s OK, because I think people are looking for leadership,’’ he said. “I’m not going to draw boundaries.’’
Independent voters, officially called undeclared, can vote in the Republican primary.
One such voter is Mark Reynolds, who works in marketing for Keene State College. Reynolds voted for President Obama and considers himself a “rabid independent.’’ He is now disappointed in Obama and leaning toward Huntsman. Reynolds said he thinks Mitt Romney is a “flip-flopper’’ and the other candidates are too extreme. “Huntsman seems more reasonable,’’ he said.
Sue Daigle, a reiki practitioner from Stratham and independent, is supporting Huntsman. Daigle considers herself a moderate and likes Huntsman’s views on maintaining a friendly relationship with China, cutting the budget, term limits for Congress, and fixing Social Security. “I find him to be very real, less political than the others,’’ Daigle said.
From the start, Huntsman distinguished himself as more moderate than his rivals. In August, he criticized the other candidates for refusing to compromise on raising the debt ceiling. On climate change, he tweeted: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.’’
Unlike Rick Santorum or Rick Perry, Huntsman has not gone after evangelical or socially conservative voters, almost never mentioning religion, abortion, gay marriage, or other social issues unless asked.
Huntsman often takes a compromising tone in answering questions. He supports securing the border, but says it is impossible to deport all illegal immigrants in the country. He would repeal Obama’s health care overhaul, but acknowledges, when asked, that it has some positive features, like allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance.
Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College, said he thinks it made sense for Huntsman to go after independents. “A lot of folks are running to be the conservative alternative to Romney,’’ Lesperance said. “Initially for Huntsman, the idea was to differentiate himself and to make an appeal toward moderates, independents, and frustrated Democrats.’’
But, Lesperance said, “the problem is once you define yourself as a moderate candidate, you have trouble courting the base.’’
Huntsman disputes the notion that he is a moderate. “A moderate temperament should not be confused with a moderate record,’’ he told the Globe in November.
In December, he raised doubts about his belief that humans cause climate change, mentioning for the first time that there is some dispute about it within the scientific community.
On the trail, Huntsman says he believes conservatives passed over him because he served as Obama’s ambassador to China. He deflects the criticism by saying that he served three Republican presidents and will always serve his country.
Asked last week if he could get conservative votes, Huntsman said, “We’ve got a lot of people coming around who maybe glossed over us at the beginning because we crossed a partisan line. . . . Maybe they forgot to look at my record as governor.’’
But few conservatives are lining up behind him. Kevin Smith, a Republican gubernatorial candidate and former executive director of the conservative think tank Cornerstone Policy Action, said it is a matter of message.
“Up until very recently, I don’t think Huntsman was playing up his conservative credentials enough,’’ Smith said. “He came into the race positioning himself as the moderate in the race.’’
The added challenge for Huntsman is that many moderates already favor Romney. Both candidates are Mormon businessmen and former governors who focus on fiscal issues, and Romney is better known.
Daniel Herrick, a Republican who works on patient safety and quality at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, considers himself socially moderate and fiscally conservative and is debating between Romney and Huntsman. “Both have good, solid views of the economy and foreign policy,’’ Herrick said.
He attended a town hall with Huntsman this week and is seeking more information.
“I’m not going to flip a coin,’’ Herrick said. “I’ll be watching in the next week or so.’’