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Huntsman Hits Capitol Hill to Charm Senators

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The Huntsman camp, which continues to hire staff for a potential bid, has signaled he would make winning New Hampshire central to his primary campaign strategy. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who has yet to meet or be in contact with Huntsman, said it is unclear whether the ex-ambassador can be successful there. The New Hampshire Republican said Huntsman’s prospects would be determined through extensive grass-roots campaigning and how he addresses his service to Obama.

“I don’t know how the people in New Hampshire will take him,” Ayotte said. “I do think, though, that one of the questions Republicans want to know is, certainly he’s worked with the administration. How does he feel that he’ll be in a position to beat the president given that he served underneath him? And, I think that’s an important question he’s got to get out and talk to Republicans about, and answer.”

Huntsman’s reception among Utah Republicans was mixed during his roughly one-and-a-half terms as governor. The charismatic chief executive was among Utah’s most popular governors ever, winning re-election in a landslide. He presided over a strong state economy, promoting and enacting unabashedly conservative fiscal policies. But some conservatives and tea party activists grew disenchanted with him during his second term, charging that he was too moderate on environmental and social policies.

Sen. Jim DeMint, who plans to be active in the GOP presidential primary after he settles on a candidate, said he has yet to meet Huntsman and doesn’t know much about him. But the South Carolina Republican, who regularly takes sides in GOP Senate primaries against the candidate perceived as moderate, or at least less conservative, said he looks forward to meeting Huntsman and learning more about him.

“A few people who know him have mentioned things to me. But I’m just going to wait and meet him myself and see what kind of candidate he is,” said DeMint, who in the 2008 GOP primary backed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Huntsman and Romney are both Mormons.

Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander said that Huntsman’s service in the Obama administration should not preclude him from running for president in 2012, although he made clear that it would ultimately be GOP primary voters who determine that. Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, was a Republican presidential primary candidate in the 1996 race. The two have not met to discuss 2012.

“He’s perfectly well-qualified to compete for the presidency. He has a distinguished background as a governor and an ambassador. Primary voters can sort that out,” Alexander said. “But he’s certainly well-qualified.”

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