No group will shape Jon Huntsman's political future more than New Hampshire's independents.
Notoriously late to decide and difficult to poll, roughly 40 percent of the state's voters is not registered with any party. And election law gives them a prominent role in Tuesday's Republican presidential primary, a contest in which Huntsman has staked his candidacy on a top-three finish.
The former Utah governor, unsuccessful in a months-long appeal to traditional conservatives, recently shifted strategy to make an aggressive play for independents. What he says and where he says it now suggests he thinks he's found a path to relevancy in the race for the GOP nomination.
The message was on display Sunday as Huntsman struck a distinctly moderate tone during a nationally televised debate while rebutting rival Mitt Romney's criticism of Huntsman's role as ambassador to China in the Obama administration.
"He criticized me while he was out raising money, for serving my country in China, yes under a Democrat, like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy," Huntsman said. "I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and in this country. I will always put my country first."
Romney, the New Hampshire front-runner, countered that the Republican who stands against Obama in November shouldn't be someone who served him as ambassador to China.
Huntsman followed up: "This nation is divided ... because of attitudes just like that."
While Huntsman may be a factor Tuesday, any strategy that depends upon the independent vote is risky at best.
Romney and Ron Paul, the libertarian-minded Texas congressman, have support among unaffiliated voters as well. But it would be a mistake to assume that all unaffiliated voters here are moderates or pure political centrists. Many simply don't like party labels.
A sampling of the audience at a recent Romney event in Salem turned up unaffiliated voters who leaned toward Romney, Huntsman, Paul, and even Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator whose political career has been driven by social conservatism _ hardly a priority for the stereotypical independent.
Cindy Goucher, 42, an unaffiliated voter from Derry, said she liked Romney and Huntsman.
"I'm more of a moderate," she said, noting her interest in candidates who are more willing to compromise. "I think as Americans, we all need to work together and be flexible, work as a team."
Huntsman will need a lot of people like Cindy Goucher to vote Tuesday _ and to vote for him instead of Romney.
Huntsman unveiled signs bearing a new campaign slogan late Monday _ "Country First" _ borrowing a phrase from one of New Hampshire's favorite independent-minded presidential contenders, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Romney, too, has an aggressive strategy to win over independents that includes mass mailings and holding events in independent strongholds in the southern part of the state, according to adviser Tom Rath.
Huntsman has intensified his attacks on Romney in recent days during campaign stops in moderate strongholds along the seacoast and western part of the state. An outside group, Our Destiny PAC, run by his allies is already running anti-Romney ads across New Hampshire and will expand the advertising campaign this week to South Carolina, which holds the next Republican primary on Jan. 21.
Romney's poll numbers appear to have fallen slightly amid attacks from virtually all his rivals, but he still held a commanding lead heading into Tuesday's voting. Huntsman's numbers, which hovered in single digits for months, have begun to show a moderate rise.
Huntsman received more good news Monday when former state GOP chairman Fergus Cullen greeted him outside a bakery in Dover.
Cullen said only Huntsman or Romney could beat Obama, but that he had decided to support Huntsman for his experience and temperament.
"I like that he's a positive person," Cullen said. "He's not angry. ... The party can't give in to its anger."
The stakes are high for Huntsman Tuesday. He doesn't need to win, but will struggle to stay in the race if he finishes outside the top three.
"I don't think that would be in the realm of beating market expectations," he told The Associated Press recently when asked about a below-third finish.
He planned to spend Wednesday campaigning in South Carolina.