WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. - On the same day his campaign announced it is shifting resources from this state to New Hampshire, Republican presidential contender Jon Huntsman told voters here Friday that Florida remains crucial to his plans for vaulting out of the back of the GOP pack.
"Obviously, Florida is critically important," Huntsman told about 30 members of the Republican Jewish Coalition at a meeting here. "We're not only here, but we're here in a very big way."
Even so, Huntsman has decided not to play the straw poll set to take place at Presidency 5, a big Florida Republican gathering Sept. 22-24 in Orlando. In a statement Friday, Huntsman campaign manager Matt David said the decision to move staff from Florida to New Hampshire is "reflective of the diminished importance of Florida's 'P5.'"
That raised hackles among some Florida Republicans. "His campaign is redefining irony today," said Brian Hughes, a spokesman for the Florida Republican Party, told the Palm Beach Post. Hughes noted that rival GOP candidate Rick Perry, "who is leading in the polls," called P5 crucial to his strategy.
For Huntsman, New Hampshire looms as MORE crucial. He described it to voters here as the first step in his "three-state strategy," which sees him hopscotching from the Granite State to South Carolina and then Florida.
"With your support, your network, your contributions, we can drive this thing home, and it's going to happen first and foremost in New Hampshire," he said.
But the ex-Utah governor insisted that "this crazy Huntsman guy" can still win Florida, where he established his campaign headquarters in Orlando - his wife's hometown. His shift towards New Hampshire comes amid signs that his campaign is undergoing a major shakeup.
State Sen. Ellyn Bogandoff, who co-chaired the outreach to Jewish voters in 2008 for GOP presidential nominee John McCain, gave Huntsman a warm introduction, saying that he is "the best candidate for our country."
In his remarks to his audience here, Huntsman emphasized his foreign policy experience. Most recently President Obama's ambassador to Beijing, he cited his fluency in the Chinese language and added that he has been mobbed by Chinese tourists.
"I'm known by the wrong quarter of the world's population," quipped Huntsman, who has not been able to get out of single digits in national polls. Huntsman, who has taken some heat for his work in the Obama administration, went out of his way to mention another former employer: President Ronald Reagan.
Despite the success of the Tea Party movement and its adherents (such as Perry), Huntsman insisted that his efforts to appeal to centrist voters will pay off.
"We're going to recreate that broad, big tent for the Republican Party needed to succeed - the kind of big tent that Ronald Reagan was able to create," he told a reporter for CBS and National Journal. "You've got to appeal not only to Republicans - you've got to appeal to independents as well. And I did that as governor, and we're going to do that as a candidate."