By Michelle Nichols
LACONIA, New Hampshire (Reuters) - All eyes are on Iowa before the first Republican presidential race vote next week, but former Utah Governor and underdog Jon Huntsman is many miles away, trying to win votes one handshake at a time in New Hampshire.
Wearing a New Hampshire lapel pin given to him at his first campaign event and joking about picking up a local accent, Huntsman made his 130th public appearance in the state before a few dozen people at a Rotary meeting in the lakeside city of Laconia.
Huntsman has almost solely focused his bid to become the Republican candidate for the White House on the January 10 primary vote in New Hampshire, shunning the Iowa caucuses to instead criss-cross the New England state on his "Restoring Trust" tour.
"Iowa's going to be forgotten about ... and then everyone's going to be focused on New Hampshire," Huntsman told a town hall meeting of about 150 voters in Pelham on Wednesday. "As New Hampshire speaks, everybody tends to listen."
He put it more bluntly on Thursday on MSNBC: "They pick corn in Iowa. In New Hampshire they pick presidents."
A moderate Republican who served as President Barack Obama's ambassador to China, Huntsman cut his losses in Iowa where he realized he had no chance of winning and has instead concentrated on New Hampshire.
Despite that focus, a CNN/Time poll has him in fourth place in New Hampshire with 9 percent support, about half that of Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich and less than a quarter of voters favoring front-runner and former governor of neighboring Massachusetts Mitt Romney.
Way behind in polls of Republicans nationally, Huntsman hopes his one state focus will pay off with a late poll surge like that of Rick Santorum in Iowa.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, virtually moved to Iowa and has campaigned in all 99 of the state's counties, a move that has helped propel him in polls to third place after struggling for months to gain traction in the race.
"It shows how quickly these things can change," Huntsman said of Santorum's improvement. "We're proving the point that grassroots politicking still matters in the early caucus and primary stage, you got to get out on the street, you got to do the town hall meetings, you got to shake hands."
"They want to know who you are as a person, they want to understand your heart and soul. That can't be done via Facebook and Twitter and ads on television, it's got to be done in person," he told reporters in Laconia.
This strategy impressed Bunny Clark, 72, a retired high school teacher in Laconia, who decided she would cast her ballot in favor of Huntsman after hearing him speak at the Rotary meeting on Thursday.
But it also showed that despite his prolific campaigning, he still has a lot more New Hampshire voters to sway.
"It was an eye-opener ... he needs to be exposed to more people," said Clark. "Listening to him today completely changed my thinking. I was totally unaware of his background and what he has done."
New Hampshire often chooses more liberal Republicans and Huntsman said that a good result in the Granite State would set him up well for the following key primaries in South Carolina and Florida.
"Huntsman is not one of the candidates known to the party elite from prior campaigns or from a national reputation, so it would make sense to concentrate on making a good showing in some early contest (like New Hampshire)," Andrew Samwick, director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, said of Huntsman's strategy.
Some supporters though are worried by Huntsman's strategy to ignore the Iowa caucuses.
"I think (skipping Iowa's) going to hurt him," said Sharon Mikutel, 31, primary school teacher, from Hampstead. "I'm nervous. I think Romney will win in New Hampshire but I am still going to vote for Huntsman."
The conservative leaning New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper, which has endorsed former speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, said Huntsman had the right idea by taking a stand in the state.
"It would be working better if he'd made a stronger stand on the issues," the newspaper said in an editorial.
It all else fails, Huntsman's commitment to New Hampshire could earn him another job.
After making national television appearances wearing his New Hampshire lapel pin, Huntsman said he jokingly told the state's lawmakers: "I don't only want your vote, but I want a fee too for helping promote the state everywhere I go."
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)