MANCHESTER, N.H. -- With the political world inexorably focused on the whims of the 120,000 Iowans who caucused on Tuesday night, another candidate was about one thousand three hundred miles eastbound, placing a big bet on the idea that none of it actually mattered.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman spent Tuesday doing basically what he's done for the past few months: crisscrossing the state of New Hampshire. He started slightly north of Manchester, travelled up Route 89 toward Dartmouth College, went an hour south to liberal-leaning Keene before heading east for a town hall event in Peterborough. Only one of the major three cable news networks cared enough to broadcast a portion of it, with CNN cutting to the final event.
That's basically been the case for Huntsman for some time now. He's ceded the spotlight to the competition, making the same type of bet that Rick Santorum made in Iowa: namely, that retail politics still matter.
"I think we are a high-growth stock," Huntsman told The Huffington Post in an interview after his second appearance on Tuesday. "We are an undervalued stock. So our price-to-earnings ratio would be a little lower than it ought to be. And I think in the hours and days ahead, our PE ratio is going to change considerably and we will cease being that undervalued stock and we will be an appropriately valued stock."
This is Wall Street jargon and it is coming, ironically, from a candidate hoping to portray the Republican frontrunner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, as a stooge of the financial sector. But Huntsman sees New Hampshire as, more or less, an initial public offering for his candidacy. And he has a ready answer when asked how he's measuring success in the week ahead.
"You are given a market value," he said. "You are given a market expectation. This is the political marketplace at work. It is the real thing ... The marketplace will set their expected level of performance for us and we have to wake up on the 11th finding we did better than that."
For Huntsman, doing better than market expectations would mean finishing higher than third place, the spot he held in a recent CNN poll of New Hampshire voters, which places him four percentage points behind Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas). The idea that he will catch Romney, who held a 26-percentage point lead in a Suffolk University poll earlier this week, is something that even the most ardent Huntsman supporter still won't suggest.
Things have recently been looking up for Huntsman. Crowds that once numbered in the single digits are now in the dozens, and some have exceeded 150. All the time he has spent in New Hampshire, meanwhile, has allowed him to have more face-to-face interactions with voters there than his opponents.
But those face-to-face interactions don't always produce desired results. Speaking to a room full of doctors at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, New Hampshire, Huntsman disappointed several audience members by reaffirming his support for Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) budget, which would turn Medicare into a voucher-like system.
"We don't have a choice, folks," he proclaimed when reminded that Medicare has much lower administrative costs than private coverage.
But if his goal in touting the Ryan budget was to flex his sober-minded conservatism, the message was effectively muddled moments later, when he suggested that he might keep portions of President Obama's health care law in place, namely language that outlaws discrimination against people with pre-existing conditions.
"I don't use it as an applause line," he told The Huffington Post of his hesitancy in calling for repeal of the Affordable Care Act. "I use it based upon a real discussion with the voters about what needs to be done. In other words, I don't believe as a politician in throwing out applause lines. I don't believe in that. And I never will."
He paused a second before concluding, ultimately, that if he ended up being president he would likely dismantle all of the health care law anyway because he believes its components are too intertwined to keep any one of them in place. "I think that's the reality of it," he said.
It is the perfect representation of Huntsman on the stump: a candidate who -- at his best -- can be all things to all voters, more often than not struggles to find that one thing that gets voters excited.
Curtis Cote, a heart surgeon who attended the speech at Dartmouth Medical, said he enjoyed what Huntsman had to say. But the sale wasn't made. "You get a little bit excited seeing these candidates in person," he says, with a noble bit of self-restraint. "So I have to take that into account." Within 20 yards, Cote has conceded that he is more philosophically in line with Ron Paul.
Huntsman's stump speech produces more nods of approval than vocal applauses, in part because the first portion of it is an utterly depressing assessment of the state of the country. "We are in a funk," he says. "We are dispirited ... we are dejected. We are in a hole." At one point, he openly worries about "the end of the American Century by 2050."
When he wants to make a particularly sharp point about one of his plans for the country -- whether it's lessening America's footprint in Afghanistan or term-limiting members of Congress -- his voice will rise in volume. But it's never a very rousing moment. From there he will pause, take a breath, and lower his pitch, as if to emphasize the seriousness of the problem he's discussing.
While parts of Huntsman's platform are alluring to voters -- and his disdain for bromides and policy pledges wins him straight-talking credibility -- he hasn't yet been able to galvanize huge levels of support.
Speaking to about 15 workers at the Tidland Corporation headquarters in Keene, Huntsman delivered a sweeping plan for revitalizing manufacturing in America, one that involves revamping the tax code and regulatory burdens, challenging businesses to in-source and calling together the nation's 50 governors to undertake a comprehensive, national job training program. It's the type of platform perfect for a paper mill supplies manufacturer that, just two years ago, was forced to make major cutbacks under the weight of the recession. And, indeed, every attendee who spoke with The Huffington Post said they liked what they heard. But none would commit their vote ... as of now.
Mike Breault, who has worked for four months at the company and describes himself as an avid watcher of CNN and MSNBC, was upset that Huntsman didn't address the problem of money in politics. "He hit what we wanted to hear and I think Obama did the same thing," he said.
Working right beside him at the plant, Frank Klitch, 59, said he liked what Huntsman "had to say about manufacturing" but was waiting till the debates to make up his mind. "It will be a gut feeling," he said.
Gary Sourtemanche, 55, called himself a rarity at the Tidland Corporation: "an Obama person." And when Huntsman told him to "spread the word" about his candidacy, he replied: "I don't think you want me spreading the word."
And yet, he may be the one Tidland worker who ends up casting a vote in favor of Huntsman. New Hampshire has an open primary, meaning Democrats can vote in it as well, and Sourtemanche, a native of Massachusetts, has an intense dislike for the Bay State's former governor.
"I may vote for Huntsman," he conceded, "because a vote for him is a vote against Romney."
BEFORE YOU GO