Huntsman aims to crack Romney's edge in Granite State

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Republican presidential candidate, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman holds eight-week-old Grace Lesperance while campaigning at Mary’s Bakery and Cafe in Henniker, N.H. Monday, Jan. 9, 2012. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)

NASHUA, N.H. – With GOP White House hopeful Mitt Romney poised to win Tuesday’s primary – as rivals start to punch harder – second place is up for grabs as the race moves on to South Carolina and Jon Huntsman needs to find a lifeline to hang on.

For Huntsman, the former Utah governor who was President Barack Obama’s ambassador to China, after skipping the Jan. 3 kickoff Iowa vote to concentrate here, single-digit results may doom his campaign.

“We are going to surprise a whole lot of people in this country tomorrow night,” Huntsman told a crowd at a town hall in Exeter.

While all the other GOP contenders – even Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann who dropped out – have been front-runners at least for a time – Huntsman never had an up.

Huntsman appealed to independents – who can vote in the GOP primary here – as he railed against Romney, not mentioning his name.

“The people in this state, they don’t want to be told for whom to vote. And they sure don’t want the establishment teeing up the same old people. They want a new generation of leadership,” Huntsman said.

Romney edged out former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) by eight votes in the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus vote. Santorum hopes his surprise Iowa showing will help in the Granite State – where Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who has a home here, has held a lead in every poll for months.

In the days before the Iowa caucus, Santorum’s campaign followed the political dictum, if you want a big crowd, book a small room, spilling out of library meeting spaces.

Overly optimistic, perhaps – or forgetting the rule – Santorum held a town-hall meeting outdoors – in the chill – with a small crowd on the Rivier College Athletic Field.

Asked about his New Hampshire prospects, Santorum said, “In my dreams, second place. Given the fact that we’re not running any media up here and that we’ve only just spent five days in the last month here campaigning, you know second place would be a dream come true. They asked these questions in Iowa and I just said you know what, we just have to exceed expectations.”

Romney – who has run a cautious campaign – made a comment on Monday seized on by his GOP rivals and Democrats.

They took a snippet of a quote – “I like to fire people” – out of context to make it seem that Romney, a multimillionaire, was out-of-touch and insensitive.

This comes after Romney is being jabbed harder by Democrats and GOP rivals for the jobs he claims he created when he headed Bain Capital from 1984 to 1999. A new SuperPAC backing former House Speaker Newt Gingrich – Winning Our Future – is making Romney out to be a “predatory corporate raider” while at Bain.

On Monday, Romney was discussing health insurance and the system in the U.S. where most people have to get their insurance through their employers during a session at the Nashua Chamber of Commerce. If people change jobs, they may have to get a new insurance company.

“I want people to own their own insurance if they wish to,” Romney said. “. . . I want individuals to have their own insurance. That means the insurance company will have an incentive to keep you healthy. It also means that if you don’t like what they do, you could fire them. I like being able to fire people who provide services to me. If someone doesn’t give me the good service I need, I want to say, ‘You know, I’m going to get someone else to provide that service to me.’ ”

While all the other Republicans take questions from the press, Romney has preserved his front-runner status in part by not being accessible. Because of the flap over his firing remark – which could escalate if left unchecked – Romney held his first press availability in a week.

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