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Romney, Huntsman battle for independents in New Hampshire

Mitt Romney in New Hampshire
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife Ann serve pancakes during a Labor Day pancake breakfast, Sept. 5, 2011 in Manchester, N.H. AP Photo/Jim Cole

Political primaries are usually all about the competing strategies candidates use to fire up the true believers in one political party or the other. But two candidates for the Republican nomination in 2012 -- former governors Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Jon Huntsman of Utah -- see things differently. While Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Gov. Rick Perry compete for red-meat Republican primary voters, Romney and Huntsman are serving up ideas cooked to a nice medium rare, in the hopes of winning over the famously independent and contrarian voters of New Hampshire.

Neither Bachmann nor Perry has made New Hampshire a priority -- both are more focused on winning the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucus -- while Romney and Huntsman have made multiple visits. Huntsman in fact skipped a major forum sponsored by conservative Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina on Monday to go to a Labor Day parade in Milford, N.H. Trailing behind the other candidates in the polls, Huntsman has matter-of-factly predicted he can win New Hampshire.

"We've got a lot of folks gravitating to our side, and I can tell you," he told a National Journal-CBS reporter traveling with him Monday. "I'm very confident about what the months ahead bring. This is a state that's absolutely consistent with our issues and our brand of retail politics." When about 100 people turned out at the parade to march alongside Huntsman, he crowed that his audiences are getting "bigger and bigger every time." (To offer a little perspective, 600 people showed up the same day to see former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in Manchester, N.H.)

Romney also see himself winning New Hampshire, and has spent more time and money there than in any other state. Perry, in occasional digs at Romney, often suggests that the Republican field needs someone who won't "blur the differences between" the GOP and President Obama in 2012. Such remarks point up the moderate, bridge-the-difference policies that Romney supported as governor, including a health care law that was the forerunner of the Obama plan now much maligned by conservatives.

He has also not emphasized his support for the tea party in the state the way other candidates have, and in fact, made his first appearance to a tea party crowd on Sunday in Concord, N.H. He drew a relatively tepid audience of 250, less than half the number that turned out to see Palin the next day.

Jon Huntsman
Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman drops in on a family having lunch during a campaign stop in Alton Bay, Sept. 4, 2011 in Alton, N.H. AP Photo/Jim Cole

In his remarks, Romney struck themes calculated to appeal to his audience's views favoring a limited role for the federal government. "Our founders gave us political freedom," he said. "This is the greatest nation in the history of the earth in part because of these founding parents who understood the power of that freedom, and we're going to make sure we keep it." But he also employed mainstays from his standard stump speech, citing his experience as a career businessman and his success creating jobs in Massachusetts. He was careful not to mention any of the other candidates, who tend to have more ardent tea party support.

In a phone interview, Matt Kibbe, the president of the pro-tea party FreedomWorks, sniffed that Romney's appearance was "blatantly opportunistic" and suggested that the governor is reaching out now to tea party supporters only because "he's falling behind in the polls." Kibbe said Romney's record on health care, environmental regulation and government spending is at odds with tea party views. Tea partiers are not looking for a "typical pat on the head," he said. "They are really interested in where he stands on policy."

"I like Mitt, but it's time to quit," read the sign carried by tea party supporter Ralph Zazula, who drove 100 miles from his home in Massachusetts to the rally and said he voted for Romney for senator and governor but doesn't think he'd make a good president. "The most critical issue that we're faced with right now is restraining the size of government," he said. "And Mitt is a guy who is less likely to reduce the size of government as much as the other candidates, or my fear is that he might continue to allow it to grow." special report: Election 2012

Huntsman, meanwhile, campaigned in northern New Hampshire on Sunday. Like Romney, he is trying to build momentum around merging party stalwarts and independents, who were key to victories for John McCain in 2000 and 2008. However, New Hampshire has also been a haven for anti-establishment backlash, as it was when conservative Pat Buchanan beat Kansas Sen. Bob Dole in 1996 and finished a strong second to President George Herbert Walker Bush in 1992. Huntsman is betting much of his strategy on the McCain model.

"The Republican Party needs to win back independents, we need to win back disaffected Democrats who used to be Republicans a long time ago, who were 'Reagan Democrats,' so called," Huntsman said at a meet-and-greet event at a crafts fair in Alton Bay. "We've got to have numbers on our side. So growing contrast is one thing, but we've got to have a candidate who can cross traditional boundaries and bring in the numbers that will allow us to win an election, plain and simple."

National Journal's Jackie Koszczuk and Major Garrett contributed to this report.

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