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Displeased with Perry, some former NH supporters go 'shopping'

HUDSON, N.H. -- Presidential candidate Rick Perry's gaffe during Wednesday's CNBC debate sent at least a few of his New Hampshire supporters running in the opposite direction. Tonight, a couple of them showed up at Jon Huntsman's town hall meeting at the Hudson American Legion in search of a new candidate.

Mike Valade of Hudson called himself a "Reagan conservative" who has voted in every New Hampshire primary since 1980. Until two nights ago, he was an ardent Perry supporter.

But not anymore. Friday evening, he said, he was "out shopping." He wasn't alone.

"We're looking for a clear articulate conservative spokesman for the Republicans against Obama," Valade said of his fellow New Hampshire Republican voters.

"Gov. Perry, who was a leading contender for that role, has fallen -- splat -- flat on his face in the mud. Nose in the mud," Valade told NBC News.

Citing Perry's last three debate performances, Valade said the Texas governor's inability to recall the third federal department he would eliminate was the last straw in what he called "distracted" appearances.

Jim Cole / AP

Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Republican presidential candidate, smiles as Carter Mead shows off the decorations on his prosthetic leg during a tour of Next Step Orthotics and Prosthetics, Friday, in Manchester, N.H. Huntsman later held a town hall meeting in Hudson. Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, second from right, later introduced Huntsman at the Hudson meeting.

"Gov. Perry was the man. He had the political belief and the experience and background," Valade said with a sigh. "But he's proven he doesn't have the one vital element to make it happen. He can't stand up there and explain himself very well at all ... it's going to be required in this campaign, clearly."

Standing in the back of the American Legion banquet hall, Valade wondered aloud if the former Utah governor could win him over and feasibly snag the nomination.

According to the latest CBS/National Journal poll, Perry has dropped to garner just 8 percent of likely Republican voters, while Huntsman flounders at 1 percent nationally. In New Hampshire, both Perry and Huntsman got 4 percent in the Harvard/St. Anselm College poll last month.

Valade admitted Huntsman's tenure as Obama's top envoy to China bothered him a "little bit." At this point with his choices however, he does not consider it a deal-breaker.

"Romney doesn't have the views. Since Perry has self-destructed, I guess many people here are looking at maybe Gov. Huntsman to be that man," he said before the town hall began. Valade is also taking a second look at former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a candidate who aggressively campaigns in New Hampshire but has fallen off the national radar in polling.

When Huntsman walked into the room, Valade stood in the back row and watched former Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge introduce the former ambassador to China.

Huntsman gave his standard stump speech in bits and pieces, using questions as prompts. He said he relished his underdog position, promising, "We will win New Hampshire."

As usual, Huntsman was wonkish on China, touted his Wall Street Journal-endorsed economic plan, and lacked specifics on social security and health care in what sounded like the umpteenth introduction of himself in a state in which he has focused his entire campaign. (Huntsman has done nearly 100 events here since June.) About 70 voters attended, a far cry from Perry's Granite State campaign stops which have attracted four times that. Several voters identified themselves as registered independents.

Meanwhile in the back row, Valade hoped to ask a question on tax reform. Ultimately he didn't get called on.

Eighty minutes of voter questions and answers ranging from drug legalization to campaign finance reform to foreign policy to job creation later, Valade seemed to have found a new home for his vote.

He sought out this reporter in the dispersing crowd to deliver his verdict. "Worthy!" he said excitedly.

"Huntsman is worthy," Valade reiterated as he rushed out the door. "Probably going to get my vote."

That is, for now.