HAMPSTEAD, N.H. — After months of speaking to crowds of 10 or 20 people, Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman today had to stand atop a coffee shop counter to be heard, as close to 300 people packed BeanTowne Coffee House and spilled out into the parking lot.
The reinvigorated Huntsman seemed to draw energy from the crowd —which aides had expected would number closer to 40. “This is incredible!” Huntsman exclaimed to cheers. “They say that this state loves a underdog. Ladies and gentleman, here is your underdog!”
With just two days until the New Hampshire primary, the former Utah governor is creeping up in the polls, and Granite Staters are taking notice. Polls out in the last few days have found Huntsman breaking out of the single digits to the low teens, into a contest for third place with former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has a strong lead and Texas Representative Ron Paul is in second.
Today, Huntsman was mobbed by voters and the media. He answered a handful of questions, as voters struggled to reach him through the crush of cameras. He continued talking as he got behind the wheel and drove himself away in a black SUV.
Several voters said they were impressed with Huntsman’s debate performances last night and today.
“I was impressed with his answers, his posture on stage. He looked presidential,” said Nicholas Delcore, a 22-year-old Republican from Hampstead. “The others bickered too much.”
Huntsman also expanded on his defense of serving as ambassador to China in the Obama administration.
In last night’s ABC News debate, Romney criticized Huntsman for his service. “I’m sorry, Governor, you were, the last two years, implementing the policies of this administration in China,” Romney said to Huntsman. “The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward.”
Huntsman responded at this morning’s NBC News-Facebook debate, saying of Romney, “He criticized me while he was out raising money for serving my country in China… I will always put my country first.”
Speaking to reporters later today, Huntsman went further. “Apparently, Mitt Romney doesn’t believe in putting country first,” he said. “He’s got this bumper sticker that says proud of America, believe in America. How can you believe in America when you’re not willing to serve in America? That’s just phony nonsense.”
Huntsman continued: “I served my country. I step up when my president asks. I always will. It’s part of my philosophy. I know that may be hard for Mitt Romney and some people to take, but most of America is with me.”
Several voters said they liked Huntsman’s record of service. Alyson Sandler, a college student from Hampstead and an independent voter, volunteered for President Obama in 2008. She now plans to vote for Huntsman in the Republican primary. “His record shows he’s willing to work across the aisle,” she said.
Politico this morning posted online a memo that Huntsman strategist John Weaver sent out on Saturday. Despite the former Utah governor’s low standing in the polls, Weaver tried to portray the race as a two-man fight between Romney and Huntsman.
Weaver wrote that the race will be a contest between Romney and an “electable alternative.”
“That alternative will be Jon Huntsman or Rick Santorum but will not be decided until late spring, despite the wishes of Washington insiders,” he wrote. He also tried to raise expectations for a Romney victory, writing that “anything short of a near outright majority” for Romney in New Hampshire should not be seen as a victory, given his advantages of a summer home in New Hampshire, universal name recognition, and a campaign that started during the 2008 election cycle.
Shira Schoenberg can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shiraschoenberg.