Huntsman could play NH primary spoiler

GOP hopeful Jon Huntsman could have an impact in New Hampshire even if he doesn't win the state by siphoning votes from front-runner Mitt Romney who has invested heavily in winning the first-in-the-nation primary.

Political observers say even if Huntsman, who's betting his political fortunes on a good showing in the Granite State, doesn't win first place there, he could still help decide which candidate does come out on top.

Generally, Mitt Romney has led most polls in New Hampshire. Recently however, along with his surge in other primary states and national polls, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has risen to near the front of the Republican presidential field, polling either in second place or even ahead of Romney in some surveys.

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Huntsman has himself experienced a bump in the polls, adding to Romney’s worries.

In New Hampshire, a recent Rasmussen Reports poll found Huntsman at 11 percent, behind Mitt Romney (with 34 percent), Newt Gingrich (24 percent) and Ron Paul (14 percent).

The poll's findings are Huntsman's best showing in the state. Prior to that, most surveys have shown the former Utah governor either in the high single digits or low double digits. Some have said the poll is the beginning of a Huntsman surge.

His campaign has focused almost all their energies in New Hampshire and hope a strong showing in the state will give Huntsman the momentum for victories in later primaries. 

Political observers caution that it's still too early to tell whether Huntsman is finally seeing a payoff of his strong focus in New Hampshire but if he is, it's likely thanks to increasing support from the moderate and independent voters Mitt Romney has long worked to win over.

If Huntsman is able to rally enough New Hampshire voters that might otherwise vote for Romney behind him, he could actually help bump Romney out of first place.

"I suspect that right now Huntsman is serving to take votes away from Mitt Romney. We don't really have a way of proving that but I look at the data and Huntsman is doing very well among independents in the primary and he's doing very well with people who are not affiliated with the Tea Party," Scott Rasmussen of Rasmussen Reports says.

Thus far, Huntsman's increased poll numbers have been modest at best. But Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP says Huntsman could (conceivably) finish in New Hampshire with 15 or even 20 percent of the vote.

"I do think he has an opportunity [at] second place that gets 15 to 20 percent of the vote," Cullen said.

If Huntsman were to end up with 15 or 20 percent of the vote, it would probably come from a mixture of undecided voters and voters who previously planned on voting for Romney.

In both the Rasmussen poll and a recent American Research Group poll Romney leads by ten points. If Gingrich continues to rise in New Hampshire polls and Huntsman were to steal a chunk of voters away from Romney, he could move Gingrich into first place, Romney into second, and himself into third.

Already seen as a moderate candidate, Huntsman's campaign believes its best chance of performing well in New Hampshire is by appealing to independent and moderate voters but not strong conservatives, so he's more likely to take voters from Romney than Gingrich.

As an example, Huntsman was recently surprised at a town hall event by New Hampshire's popular sitting Democratic governor, John Lynch. Lynch shook his hand and praised Huntsman's focus on the state. A candidate seeking conservative voters might have flinched at Lynch's praise but Huntsman's campaign embraced it.

"Of course not," a Huntsman staffer said when asked if the campaign looked to shy away from Lynch's words. "H‪e is the sitting governor of the state and enjoys an approval rating of upper 50s with Republicans‬ and overall is like in the 80s -- immensely popular.”

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There's something to this. Even in his home state of Utah, Huntsman has about the same support among Democrats as he does with Republicans. A PPP poll in July found that Huntsman had the support of 44 percent of Utah Democrats surveyed and 44 percent support from Utah Republicans.

Since then there's been little sign that more conservative Republicans have warmed up to him. If Huntsman's campaign hurts anyone in the polls, it's going to be Romney.

"We will gain the most votes from people who support Mitt Romney but at the same time his support is off in the state," A Huntsman campaign staffer said. "When you're looking at polling here, Newt has surged just recently so it's hard to say where in the party or where in the state his support comes from."

The staffer cautioned that it's too early to tell if an increase in support for Huntsman is coming from Romney backers or previously undecided voters.

"I mean until we see a sustained presence in the polling it's hard to say where we're siphoning the votes off," the staffer added.

But others are skeptical. Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said that right now, there's little reason to think Huntsman will influence the outcome of the New Hampshire primary.

"We're just not seeing him move much. He hasn't moved much in our surveys," Smith said. "He was at eight percent in early October and he's at eight percent now."

Smith cautioned though that there's still time between now and New Hampshire's GOP primary in January. He admitted also that it's conceivable for Huntsman to steal some votes from Romney.

"Huntsman potentially could have an impact on Romney," Smith said. "He could take some from Romney but I don't know how much."‬

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