LEBANON, N.H. — As all eyes turn from Iowa to New Hampshire, Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman today sharpened his critique of his major rival in New Hampshire, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
Romney is leading in the New Hampshire polls, while Huntsman, the former Utah governor who has staked his campaign on a strong showing in the state, is in third place, according to today’s Suffolk University tracking poll. Huntsman has started referring to himself as the “underdog” as he asks voters to upend conventional wisdom and vote for him.
Huntsman has long been criticizing Romney for flip-flopping on issues, and has recently started deriding Romney as an “establishment candidate.”
Speaking to employees at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., Huntsman said the country needs a president who will take on the banking sector. “If you’re the largest recipient of funds from the banking sector, as Governor Romney is, for example, do you think you can fix what needs to be fixed?” Huntsman asked. “No way, no how. It’ll be a status quo outcome.”
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Romney has received more money from employees of commercial banks than any other candidate — $542,000.
At a town hall in Peterborough, Huntsman again portrayed Romney as the choice of the establishment. “No one wants a coronation,” he said. “No one wants to be told for whom to vote. … We can’t afford a status quo presidency.”
“If you’re endorsed by 47 members of Congress, do you think you can bring about the reform you need in Congress?” Huntsman added. “No way, No how.”
When a reporter asked him how he differed from Romney, Huntsman responded, “I can get elected.”
Huntsman added, “I haven’t been on three sides of all the issues of the day. I ran a state that was number one in job creation as opposed to number 47.” Huntsman said his foreign policy experience — as someone who has lived overseas four times — is different from Romney’s.
Romney, Texas Representative Ron Paul, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum are all battling for the top spot in today’s Iowa caucuses. But Huntsman seemed less concerned about either Paul or Santorum. Santorum has had little support in New Hampshire. While Paul is currently in second place, it is unclear if the libertarian-leaning representative can broaden his support, especially given recent controversy over inflammatory statements about race published under his name in the 1980s and 1990s (Paul has disavowed the statements).
Asked what would happen if Santorum and Paul come in first and second in Iowa, Huntsman said, “It depends what the staying power is beyond that.” He pointed to Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008 and came in third in New Hampshire.
“I do believe New Hampshire is the leavening state,” Huntsman said. “This is where the order is going to be set in terms of the truly competitive candidates going forward.”
Huntsman said the New Hampshire primary will have a different dynamic than the Iowa caucuses because it has a much higher turnout. “It will speak to the whole issue of electability, where that doesn’t come through in Iowa,” Huntsman said. “You have a small percentage of the overall population turning out to vote [in Iowa]. Here in New Hampshire, you get a large percentage of the population turning out to vote including Republicans, independents, even some Democrats.”
Asked by a voter in Peterborough if he had a message to the winner of tonight’s Iowa caucus, Huntsman responded: “Welcome to New Hampshire. Nobody cares.”Shira Schoenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.