NASHUA, N.H. – If Jon Huntsman was worried about the turbulence buffeting his Cessna of a presidential campaign –- which already had one working engine out and was losing altitude –- he was doing his best to hide it.
"I'm just going to put you on notice," the former U.S. ambassador to China said Friday, standing to address a group of 20 or so local business officials. "We're going to win New Hampshire, and I just want you to be the first to know it."
The Granite State, he added, "is a state that loves to take a margin of error candidate from nowhere right to the very end."
"Nowhere" is a fair description of where Huntsman's campaign has gone so far. He's certainly nowhere in the polls -- his name isn't even included in the Real Clear Politics poll averages, and he's barely scraping by at one percent in most surveys. His $4.1 million fundraising haul for the second quarter was a bit better than several other candidates, but not by much. And it came in part from roughly $2 million of personal wealth he added to the pot.
Then there was the release last week of personal emails between Huntsman and an old friend, David Fischer, revealing what Huntsman called "drama" within the campaign. Fischer quit as a campaign adviser in protest of what he and others said was abusive behavior by Huntsman's senior political adviser, John Weaver -- an unwelcome distraction to a candidate that doesn't need them.
There were cracks in Huntsman's serene exterior on Thursday during his first event after the Fischer story ran in Politico. His hair was still perfectly coiffed, his white shirt unwrinkled, but he was haggard and looked preoccupied at times during his remarks and subsequent question-and-answer period. However, his response was efficient. When asked about the story, he backed Weaver, rejected Fischer and sought to move on.
A day later he sat down for an interview with The Huffington Post, and rejected the idea that Fischer's accusations about Weaver were true. When asked whether he has ever seen Weaver behave abusively toward others, he replied, "No. No."
"John has been central to this undertaking from day one. I wouldn't be doing this if he hadn't put an apparatus together and thought through it and convinced me that there was room in this race for somebody with our background and our message. And he's indispensable to this campaign," Huntsman said.
Huntsman is solicitous and earnest in larger settings with voters, clearly employing tools he has gained as a diplomat. But one on one, another side of him –- the scion of a powerful and wealthy Utah manufacturing and chemical CEO, corporate executive in his own right, then governor of Utah –- comes into focus. He is less deferential, more direct and cocky.
His warmth ran cold only once, at the mention of former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.), his distant cousin and the putative frontrunner in the 2012 Republican race. Asked about Romney's rejection of the debt ceiling deal, Huntsman's face tightened as he paused for several beats, and then he said quietly, "He's free to do whatever he wants."
The logic behind Huntsman's candidacy was that he could be the adult in the room, a moderate and congenial voice of experience -- businessman, executive, diplomat -- whose suave stylishness would contrast well with Romney's awkward personal manner, and whose reasonableness would win out over the more shrill voices in the race, such as Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn). His intimate knowledge of China and fluency in Mandarin, at a time when China is an ascendant global power and the U.S. is in decline, would be his ace in the hole.
So far, however, little of this has punched through. Huntsman remains unknown to many voters. Although his campaign has fully embraced a New Hampshire-centric strategy, the only way in which Huntsman has distinguished himself here is by hiring an unusually large in-state staff of 21. But the candidate himself has not yet made the state the kind of priority that Weaver spoke of nearly two months ago when he promised "the most aggressive campaign in modern New Hampshire political history."
Huntsman missed the first big debate in the Granite State on June 14. And since he first set foot in New Hampshire on May 19 –- a trip to Jesse's steak house in Hanover – he has campaigned in the state only 19 of 78 days, by the campaign's own count. He'll be on stage Thursday night in Iowa for his first debate as a candidate, but he'll be an afterthought two days later at the Ames Straw Poll, the biggest campaign event so far in this cycle and one in which he will not be participating.
But the 51-year old Utah native nonchalantly dismissed concern about missed opportunities. He pulled open a pack of Smarties and said of the New Hampshire debate, "I wasn't an announced candidate. We just weren't interested."
"We've spent as much time here as we can," Huntsman said. He told The Huffington Post that he's had to take fundraising jaunts outside of the state in order to get the "lubricant that keeps the campaign going."
However, the public airing of internal bickering won't help his introduction to voters, especially at a time when public attention is primed to shift over to the 2012 race. Paul Chevalier, a paid adviser and Veterans of Foreign Wars official in the state, said Huntsman needed to campaign more vigorously in New Hampshire.
"We want him here more," he said. "He's more impressive every time I see him."
Huntsman signaled this will happen. During his session with the business leaders, he mentioned twice how important it is for him to be campaigning vigorously in New Hampshire, on the ground, meeting folks. "I know in this state you've got to shake hands with someone 11 times before they pay attention to you," he said.
Huntsman grounded his confidence in the view that the campaign is still in its early stages.
"You got to really believe in the idea that this is a marathon, and that you're in the earliest steps of that marathon," he said. "You're going to go through cycles where a campaign is going to be counted out, then it's going to be reborn, than it's going to be counted out again," he added later.
Granite State political observers agree with him on that point.
"Each candidate is still finding his or her legs and just now starting the courting process," Charlie Arlinghaus, a conservative think tank scholar in Manchester, told HuffPost. "Internal mechanics have to be sorted out but they don't matter much right now. Huntsman is, like most candidates, unknown in [New Hampshire]. But the race doesn't start until after Labor Day. No one but a small number of insiders is paying much attention yet."
Yet as Huntsman prepares to make a push for a share of the spotlight, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's likely entry into the race threatens to push him back into the dark. A Perry announcement would hurt other candidates as well, especially Bachmann and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Here too, Huntsman professed no concern.
"Ultimately, good candidates will find their way to the finish line. I think winning messages ultimately are going to be heard above the cacophony of everything else," he said, while praising Perry's record in Texas and describing Perry himself as "well-spoken," and "charismatic."
But Huntsman's one attempt at poking Perry -– suggesting that he may not be up for the rigors of a presidential campaign –- belied that Huntsman himself might be experiencing some fatigue after less than two months as a candidate.
"He's never run before," he said of Perry. "So I think he'll find that running for president is a grueling, never ending exercise."