EXETER, N.H. -- It ended where it began. Months after he launched his presidential candidacy in Exeter, N.H., former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman returned to the historic New England town's quaint town hall for the final night of campaigning before Tuesday's primary.
A lot has changed since that June jaunt from New York City. A campaign once cloaked in high-expectations has seen its hopes diminished even as Huntsman has become a more refined, able politician. The candidate who announced his White House intentions through a series of quixotic motocross videos has stumped this past week as a post-partisan populist. On Monday night, he was the self-appointed leader of a "movement" to restore trust to politics.
"All of us in this room tomorrow and those gathered around the state are going to be fueled by trust," Huntsman said. "It is what makes this country work. We need a system that infuses that notion of trust into our system once again. So if you're with me tomorrow, I want you to remember that word trust because if there is one word that summarized what we are trying to do ... it's that word, trust. That's what this movement is about. That's what this campaign is all about."
Working the crowd for 25 minutes following a 14-minute speech (at points, aides were tugging on the back end of his leather flight jacket to separate him from onlookers), Huntsman was approached by The Huffington Post. "We'll see tomorrow," he said when asked if he was the next "movement" leader. "It could very well turn into a movement, and if it does, it's gonna be a movement about restoring trust to politics."
It was the first time Huntsman aides could recall their boss talking in such lofty terms. And the new tone caps a sequence of late-stage-campaign events that couldn't have been more fortuitous for the Utah Republican. An uncomfortable debate moment on Saturday night -- in which he, without prompting, broke out Mandarin Chinese -- was quickly forgotten as he delivered his best performance to date the morning after: a sharp denunciation of Mitt Romney for questioning his decision to accept the ambassadorship to China.
By Monday, he Huntsman had hit his stride, calling Romney "completely unelectable" for saying he enjoyed firing poor service providers, and telling his crowd that he expected to "surprise the world" come Tuesday.
"This is a Ron Paul crowd, but wealthier and nicer and with more women," said Frank Luntz, the famed GOP-wordsmith who had travelled to Exeter to hear Huntsman speak. And "these people vote. These people are from New Hampshire."
With polling trending slightly in Huntsman's direction, aides now speak sincerely of hopes for a possible second-place finish. But there is no certainty to any prognostication. Huntsman could just as easily end up fifth. New Hampshire this election season has been utterly unpredictable. And from the onset, Huntsman's campaign and even Huntsman himself have seemed just a touch off-key for these times.
It's tough, after all, to argue that the current administration is dragging the country down a hole when you served in it. It's harder to advertise a civil campaign -- "I respect the president," Huntsman declared at his campaign launch -- when your party wants blood. It's even harder to win in New Hampshire when Romney has a vacation home there and governed the neighboring state.
Were those the only roadblocks confronting Huntsman, his campaign would have been hard enough. But as his daughter Abby pointed out after Monday night's event, Huntsman has also been forced to make a lightning-quick adjustment from the world of international diplomacy to presidential politics.
At times, it's been painful. The launch day was marred after the campaign bus accidently brought reporters to a Saudi airplane at the airport in Newark, N.J., and handed out press releases with the candidate's name misspelled ("John").
By August, a longtime friends of the former governor were sharing with the press, letters he had written about internal campaign dysfunction. Months later, amidst worse than expected campaign fundraising and a growing recognition that his campaign rested on success in New Hampshire, he abandoned his headquarters, moved permanently to the Granite State, and started barebones retail politicking.
"[Y]ou say to yourself, OK, I want to be smart about this, strategic and tactical," explained Huntsman's top surrogate, former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge. "I'm not going to wait till Florida, though I think I might do well there. ... So where do I start? Let's start in the first primary state. Romney gonna win it? Sure. But will I have a good enough showing there to build momentum going into South Carolina? Absolutely. And that's where we are heading."
What's allowed the Huntsman campaign to contemplate life in the Palmetto state (he will campaign there on Wednesday) has been the same type of retail politicking that proved so helpful for former Sen. Rick Santorum in Iowa. Huntsman said he has appeared at 170 public events in New Hampshire -- more than anyone else in the field.
The rust hasn't worn off entirely. During a campaign stop at Crosby Bakery in Nashua, Huntsman left quickly without trying the cookies, whoopee pies or large chocolate cake ("Jon Huntsman 2012: Be a Part of the Solution" painted in frosting) that had been made in honor of his visit. Frances Crosby, an ardent supporter who founded the bakery 64 years ago and worked all day on the baked goods, jokingly offered her dejected -- "I wish he had tried it" -- before feeding the press corps.
Minor lapses like that are something that the Huntsman campaign can deal with. Far more important, aides stress, is how willing he's become to throw himself into the electoral process. A candidate who spoke in esoteric terms to a quiet crowd when he first walked into the Exeter Town Hall on June 21, ended the last day before the election without pretense.
"I am," he said on Monday night, "a shameless salesman at this point. I'm asking everyone for a vote."