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Politics

Jon Huntsman challenges Mitt Romney not just on N.H. turf, but business grounds

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman speaks today to group of local business owners in Portsmouth, N,H.

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. - As he campaigns across New Hampshire, Jon Huntsman is not only challenging Mitt Romney on his home territory, but also his home turf.

He’s not just staking his own presidential candidacy in the former Massachusetts governor’s adopted home state; he’s also directly challenging his claim of a superior business acumen.

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Today Huntsman made his case before a lunch meeting of Seacoast business leaders, highlighting his record as Utah governor, his business understanding of China and other Asian markets, as well as the philosophical core he said leaders must embrace and which Romney lacks.

“I’m not going to stand here and pander; it’s not my style,” he told a group of about 50 assembled at the Pease International Trade Port. “I’m not going to stand here and engage in what a lot of the other Republicans on the stage have done: signing pledges, tying themselves up in pretzels to please whatever audience they’re in front of. I’m just going to tell you what I think ought to be done.”

Speaking specifically of Romney, who has led in polls gauging sentiment for Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary, Huntsman later told reporters: “I believe it’s going to come down to trust, and when you’ve been on three sides of all the major issues of the day, that then creates a trust problem in the eyes of the voters.”

He added: “I think people see very clearly that I’ve got a core that doesn’t change; I’m consistent.”

Before a round of questioning from the business leaders, Huntsman delivered his standard stump speech.

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He argues the country suffers from two forms of deficit, an economic one and one related to a lack of trust.

“I say, ‘How pathetic is this?’ A nation that was found on the elements of trust, institutions of trust, now running on empty. The envy of the world is who we are, and we’ve lost our trust,” Huntsman said.

Like Romney, a former venture capitalist as well as a former governor himself, he proposes a mixture of tax cuts, regulatory reforms, and energy shifts to help address the first deficit.

Huntsman, who served as US ambassador to both Singapore and China, also suggests his background - including fluency in Mandarin - can also help him open new markets to US companies while addressing Chinese trade and currency issues.

As to addressing the trust deficit, Huntsman suggests a presidentially led campaign for congressional term limits among his remedies.

“We wonder why we have crony capitalism on Capitol Hill; that’s part of it,” he said.

In addition, Huntsman argues for a partisan-devoid effort to solve problems can also boost economic confidence.

“I have no question we can do it. We need leadership that understands how to fire the engines of growth and breathe a little bit of confidence to the marketplace,” he said.

In response to an audience question, Huntsman agreed that he is “David” to front-running Romney’s “Goliath.”

Before the business leaders, he politely argued that his aggressive campaigning in New Hampshire - the Portsmouth lunch was his 156th event - will win over voters, just as it did for Rick Santorum in the Iowa caucuses.

Ben Wheeler, a 32-year-old commercial loan officer from Rye, was persuaded by his arguments.

“I came in not knowing a whole lot about him and from what I heard, I’m pretty impressed,” said Wheeler. “I think he competes (with Romney), and some of his experience overseas would be stronger than Romney’s experience in foreign policy. That’s a strong leg up right now for Governor Huntsman.”

Later, before reporters, Huntsman also made clear that raising doubts about Romney on a variety of planes would also help on Tuesday.

“As people compare and contrast the record, they’ll see from a policy standpoint we are different, but also in terms of what guides us,” Huntsman said before an SUV took him to campaign stop No. 157. “I think that core is important to a lot of voters. They want a consistent core.”

Glen Johnson can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.

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