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Jon Huntsman works N.H., but lags in polls

Jim Cole/AP

Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman leaves after speaking yesterday to area residents in Laconia, N.H.

By Shira Schoenberg Globe Correspondent 

DOVER, N.H. - Even Jon Huntsman seemed amused by Izak the goat, who chewed a Huntsman sign outside the Republican presidential candidate’s town hall meeting.

Izak the goat

Brian Snyder/Reuters

“He took a bite out of my kneecap,” Huntsman told voters yesterday inside the McConnell Community Center. “Is there a better indicator in the state of New Hampshire than how well you do with the goat?”

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It was a vintage moment for the former Utah governor, who has staked his candidacy on grassroots, retail campaigning in New Hampshire.

He moved his national headquarters to the lead presidential primary state, has more than 20 staff here, and is delivering his third major policy speech in the state this week.

His appearances attract generally moderate voters, and many say they are impressed with Huntsman’s sober intellectualism and knowledge of issues.

But whether Huntsman has a chance at the nomination is another story.

He remains far behind in all the polls, including here, where he is polling around 6 percent.

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Even some supporters doubt he can win.

“Given our electorate … he doesn’t have a prayer of being elected,” said Betty Wood, a retired independent voter from Dover. “He’s not conservative enough for the Republicans.”

Wood said she will vote for Huntsman in the primary – but President Obama in the general election, if Huntsman doesn’t win the nomination.

Huntsman yesterday acknowledged that he is the underdog, but said he is confident that the “buzz factor” among people who have heard his message will make a difference.

“If the message is right and you work diligently, New Hampshire has a way of taking underdogs and moving them to frontrunner status,” Huntsman told reporters.

The Dover town hall – one of three Huntsman did yesterday – was typical of Huntsman’s events.

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He pressed an economic message of job growth; talked about the need for tax reform, regulatory reform and energy independence; and talked about the need to modernize America’s foreign policy. He gave detailed answers to questions on health care policy, Chinese aggression, and his tax reform proposal.

He impressed voters like Kelly Sinclair, a retiree and Huntsman supporter who worked in the White House political affairs department under President Reagan.

“I spent 40 years as a moderate Republican, and I miss them,” Sinclair said.

But the town hall also illustrated the challenges Huntsman faces.

When Mitt Romney spoke in the same building in August, he rented the gym and attracted 150 supporters. Huntsman chose a senior center activity room, and attracted 40.

Diane Day, a teacher from Dover, told Huntsman that she reads The Wall Street Journal and USA Today and believes he is being sidelined.

“You’re not real prominent in the national press,” Day told Huntsman.

Huntsman acknowledged that a recent spoof video that his daughters made got more headlines than his own foreign policy speech. But he told Day he believes the race is still “in the artificial straw poll period” and he will be able to get his message to resonate in New Hampshire.

Former New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Fergus Cullen said he believes Huntsman has been unnecessarily cautious in not challenging the more conservative Republican candidates.

Cullen said Huntsman has failed to distinguish himself from the pack of “non-Romney” candidates, though Huntsman has proven more moderate than the others in issues like his belief in climate change.

“He’s in the ideological sweet spot of the New Hampshire electorate, but he seems afraid to lose any conservative voters,” Cullen said.

But with Romney far ahead in all the New Hampshire polls, it is the former Massachusetts governor who Huntsman has mostly targeted.

Asked today how he would distinguish himself from Romney in this state, Huntsman returned to the common criticism of Romney: that he is inauthentic.

“People don’t want a well-lubricated weathervane,” Huntsman said. “They don’t want somebody who’s been on every side of all the major issues of the day.”

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