Of the six major Republican candidates still in the race, five have either led or flirted with leading the polls. The exception is former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman. Huntsman bypassed Iowa's Jan. 3 primary in order to focus on the competition in New Hampshire, which holds its primary on Tuesday.
NPR's Robert Siegel caught up with Huntsman on Sunday at the Bean Towne Coffee House & Cafe in Hampstead, N.H.
Outside the eatery, the crowd was a mix of Huntsman campaign workers, local Republicans and undeclared independents. There were some tourists who have come to New Hampshire to see the players up close — like baseball fans at spring training — and, of course, a cluster of reporters and cameramen surrounding the candidate.
The crowd had come to hear Huntsman, who's running as a conservative reformer, lay out his platform: he's for congressional term limits, he's staunchly against abortion and he's for a flat tax with just three brackets and no special exemptions or deductions.
"All these carve-outs and deductions are good for about 7 percent of the population," Huntsman told Siegel, and mortgage interest tax deductions are no exception.
"I think we're incentivizing debt. We should be incentivizing equity. But beyond that, if we're going to do the job right in terms of clearing out all the loopholes in deductions, I say we clean it all out, we clean out all of the cobwebs. If you keep something in then everybody is going to want their special break," Huntsman said.
The Foreign Policy Debate
Unlike his GOP competitors, Huntsman has experience in the executive branch of federal government. He's worked at the Department of Commerce; in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative; and he was U.S. ambassador to Singapore and — in the Obama administration — to China. (Huntsman speaks fluent Mandarin, which he learned as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan.)
But in Saturday night's ABC debate in New Hampshire, the candidate drew fire from competitor Mitt Romney for having served President Obama in Beijing.
"Governor, you were the last two years implementing the policies of this administration in China," Romney said. "The rest of us on the stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward."
Huntsman fired back in Sunday morning's NBC debate.
"I was criticized last night by Gov. Romney for putting my country first," he said. "He criticized me — while he was out raising money — for serving my country in China, yes, under a Democrat, like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They're not asking what political affiliation the president is. I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and in this country: I will always put my country first and I think that's important."
Of course, the disagreement doesn't end there. Huntsman faults Romney for his stance on foreign policy, including Romney's pledge to formally cite China as a currency manipulator.
Huntsman says that yes, the Chinese have manipulated their currency, keeping it artificially low, and the U.S. has been calling them out on it since the Bush administration — but that's just one issue among many.
"You can either politicize it and get cheap points out of it by being heroic on the stage and get an applause line, or you can be a realist," he said. "I'm a realist. I know how that stuff works. You sit down with the Chinese at the negotiating table and you've got a matrix of issues, one of which might be currency. The others are market access, you have North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, Burma, [the] South China Sea, the environment. You've got a lot of things on the table. You can't just one-off the relationship and expect it not to negatively impact everything else you're trying to do. It's highly unrealistic."
Huntsman also diverges from his Republican rivals on Afghanistan, saying that despite the possibility of civil war, the U.S. should pull out by 2013.
"I'd like to tell the American people that over the last 10 years, we have something to show for our involvement: no more Taliban, al-Qaida is now in sanctuaries in Waziristan and beyond, Osama Bin Laden is no longer around, we've had free elections, we've strengthened civil society, we've helped the police and military," he said. "I'd say it's time to get out."
A stance like that could put Huntsman in danger of seeming to agree with Obama, but he says there's a clear difference.
"[Obama is] listening to the generals on the ground, apparently, and he's taking a go-slower approach. I don't want to take a go-slow approach. I want to get out fast," Huntsman told Siegel. "I recognize that there's a counter-terror element to it but ... I want to get out as quickly as we can because we have achieved our objective."
Paving The Road To Florida
In the dusk outside a private home in Bedford, N.H., Jon Huntsman faced a makeshift podium of microphones and the army of media that now follows him. A reporter who has been in New Hampshire all year says Huntsman's events in private homes used to draw crowds in single digits. Now they come in dozens — sometimes even a couple hundred. The latest polls suggest Huntsman is gaining by the day, but his rise would only place him in third or, with a huge surge, in second place.
"I feel a little momentum, I feel a little surge," Huntsman said Sunday. "We're still clearly the underdog and because of that we have a lot of work ahead of us."
Huntsman says he believes he has a ticket out of New Hampshire to South Carolina's primary and after that maybe even to Florida. But if he makes it that far, he'll have to find the funds to compete. Unlike New Hampshire and South Carolina, running in the Sunshine State is more about mass media campaigning than retail politics in coffee shops and diners.
One possible source of funding could be the Huntsman family fortune. (Jon Huntsman Sr. founded a huge chemical company where the former Utah governor once served as CEO.) Last year, the New York Times reported that Huntsman is reluctant to ask his father for money, but the candidate calls that story "a little misinformed."
He says the Huntsman family gives to humanitarian causes and they don't consider a political campaign to be a humanitarian cause. Even so, the elder Huntsman is reported to have given much money to the super PAC that supports his son.
But candidate Huntsman isn't worried about funding yet — especially considering how much a primary success could pay off. He says since Saturday night, they've seen a bump in energy and donations.
"These things have a way of taking care of themselves if you perform well. You've got to perform well; you've got to beat market expectations," he said. "And if you can do that, one of those tickets we just talked about coming out of New Hampshire could be a multimillion dollar affair."