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Jon Huntsman faces skepticism about his GOP presidential bid as primary day nears

LACONIA, N.H. - How does a Republican presidential candidate rise out of fourth place, with less than two weeks before the New Hampshire primary?

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman is trying to do it by confronting skeptical voters directly. Over and over again.

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“There’s a rumor you’re considering an independent run if you don’t get the nomination,” a voter asked at a Rotary lunch today. “Are you willing to pledge you will not run as a third party candidate?”

“I’ve only answered that one at least 150 times,” Huntsman responded. “I’m running as a Republican, I’ve always been a Republican, that’s what I intend to be.”

But you won’t pledge not to, a reporter questioned later? “All I can do is give people my word,” Huntsman said. “I’ve done that 152 times now.”

What about the failure of his campaign organization to secure Huntsman a place on the Virginia ballot, asked two voters in as many days.

“When you come out of New Hampshire with a head of steam, move through South Carolina and Florida, you’ll collect all the delegates anyway,” Huntsman said at a Pelham, N.H. town meeting last night.

“We didn’t try [in Virginia],” Huntsman added to the Rotarians, repeating his line about the “head of steam.”

Then, there’s the question that’s plagued Huntsman throughout the race – this time from Liam McCarthy, a college student studying political science from Bow, N.H. “What skill separates you from the current frontrunner, Mitt Romney?” McCarthy asked.

“I’d have to say having a predictable core,” Huntsman said, echoing his past criticism of the former Massachusetts governor. “I’m not going to change who I am. Not going to find myself on three sides of every issue.”

Huntsman pre-empts the question of why he has been ignored by conservative voters, blaming it on his service as ambassador to China under Democratic President Obama (“I put my country first,” he says). According to the Associated Press, Huntsman said he may drop out if he does not finish in the top three in New Hampshire.

As the rest of the candidates compete for air time and votes in Iowa, Huntsman travels across New Hampshire with his wife and daughter, speaking to 125 people at a town hall meeting one night, and a dozen employees at Page Belting, a leather manufacturing plant in Boscawen, the next day. Today, he held his 130th public event in New Hampshire.

He urges voters to upend established wisdom. He talks about electability, about reforming the tax code, and increasing manufacturing. He shakes every hand in every room. “Are you going to be voting?” Huntsman asked 18-year-old Ethan Melonas, a worker at Page Belting. “I don’t know yet,” Melonas shrugged. Huntsman shook his hand. “If you do, I’d like your vote.”

Shira Schoenberg can be reached at sschoenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.
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