NASHUA, N.H. (AP) — Republican presidential hopeful Jon Huntsman said Monday that his intense focus on New Hampshire is paying off and went after rival Mitt Romney in unusually sharp language.
But Huntsman, the former Utah governor, is still being met by some blank looks with the primary just eight days away.
Watching Huntsman enter a Nashua diner surrounded by television cameras, voter Jimmy Pacheco at first mistook the former Utah governor for New Hampshire Gov. John Lynch, and not a flicker of recognition crossed his face when he heard Huntsman's name. But by the time Huntsman reached his booth, the former truck driver greeted him like an old friend, complimented him on his "pretty wife" and said afterward that he probably would vote for Huntsman.
Noting that Huntsman is skipping Iowa's Tuesday caucuses and staking his hopes on a strong showing in New Hampshire's Jan. 10 primary, Pacheco said, "He cares about us."
Two minutes earlier, Pacheco had said he was leaning toward Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, who has long been the front-runner in New Hampshire.
After stopping by several Nashua businesses and restaurants, Huntsman told reporters that New Hampshire is a place where an underdog can come from behind and beat expectations.
"It happens time and time again here in New Hampshire. It's where message matters, it's where grass-roots politics is rewarded, and this is a state that is finely tuned to finding leaders and then sending them south," he said.
While he lags far behind Romney in polls, the usually positive Huntsman went after Romney by name while speaking to voters in Dover later in the day.
"You can do what the establishment wants you to do. You've got a good candidate in Mitt Romney," Huntsman said. "If you have 47 members of Congress supporting you, as he just announced today, you think you're going to be to do what needs to be done in terms of reforming Congress? No how, no way."
He also suggested Romney couldn't reform the banking system because he's receiving too many donations from Wall Street.
"We cannot afford a status quo presidency," Huntsman said.
At another restaurant, GOP voter Matt Dobski said he was closer to backing Huntsman after meeting him but remained undecided. He said he likes Romney but doesn't like the health care law he enacted in Massachusetts, finds former House Speaker Newt Gingrich too polarizing, and thinks Texas Rep. Ron Paul is too extreme.
Huntsman, in contrast, "is probably one of the only candidates who's been consistent in all his policies and what's needed to change America," Dobski said. "That's important because, right now, everybody's waffling to say what they need to say to get votes. ... So a guy like Huntsman could really come through and steal the show, if he gets the media exposure he needs."
After having the state to himself last week, Huntsman soon will have plenty of company. Only seven days separate the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary
Texas Gov. Rick Perry and Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann plan to head straight to South Carolina after Iowa and then return to New Hampshire for two debates just before the primary.
Huntsman downplayed those debates, saying there have been too many already.
"I think with each passing debate, they're less and less important," he said. "People see them more as show business."