Michael Gerson

LAKE WINNIPESAUKEE, New Hampshire -- A few hundred New Hampshire Republicans mingle loudly on a sunset dinner cruise, oblivious to the scheduled speakers and to the lovely, green landscape rolling by. The best discussions, as usual, are located near the bar, where veterans of primaries past are gossiping, complaining and thoroughly enjoying their disproportionate influence over American politics.

Mitt Romney, one overhears, didn't fill the audience for his town hall meeting. Herman Cain is getting a noisy buzz. Rudy Giuliani may run, if only to erase the memory of his last, disastrous campaign. Tim Pawlenty is the most sophisticated networker but has yet to catch fire.

A skulking columnist asks: What of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman? "Don't know much about him," says a longtime GOP activist, "but I hear he is a moderate." It is not intended as a compliment.

Huntsman, making his way smoothly around the deck, seems determined to convert everyone, handshake by handshake. His staff believes his comparative advantage is retail politics. Huntsman is beginning a two-day, 11-stop tour of New Hampshire's North Country, including two VFWs and Chutters candy shop. Scheduling must be a challenge; the region is populated by about 18 persons per square mile. When it comes to grass-roots politics, Huntsman is burrowing deep.

Compared to some other in the Republican field, Huntsman is barely registered in national polls. But activists in early primary states see a serious resume and considerable political skills. Some talk of his potential for 2016. A number of political heavy-hitters have signed on this time around. In a flat political market, Huntsman is considered a growth stock.

The media have often covered Huntsman as a liberal Republican -- a Rockefeller reincarnation. After all, he supports civil unions. He made it easier to get a drink at a bar in Utah. This easy press narrative gives Huntsman an odd advantage in a Republican primary: He is more conservative than his image. For many Republicans, he will improve upon closer inspection.

"At the beginning of a campaign," Huntsman tells me, "labels drive the debate. Once I'm better known -- my record as governor, my temperament -- this will shift." Recognizing the power of labels, however, he suggests a different one: "Maybe conservative problem-solver."

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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