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How much the 'Super PAC' Huntsman ad helps (or doesn't)

By NBC's Jo Ling Kent

Manchester, NH — Earlier this week, Jon Huntsman finally hit the airwaves in New Hampshire thanks to a major ad buy underwritten by the pro-Huntsman group Our Destiny PAC — a so-called “Super PAC” that is legally barred from coordinating with the Huntsman campaign but can accept unlimited contributions from corporations and individuals. The 60-second spot was an early Christmas gift to the cash-starved campaign for the former Utah governor, who is struggling in the polls.

Elise Amendola/AP

Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, former Utah governor, speaks Wednesday during a town meeting in Derry, N.H.

Now the question is whether the dramatic, booming ad is actually working for Huntsman in a state where he has staked his entire struggling presidential bid.

With just seven weeks to go until the primary, the feedback is mixed. There is both a new sense of excitement about a candidate who desperately needs the traction and blunt criticism that the ad might not be as effective as it needs to be.

The spot -- which Huntsman himself claims he had yet to see as of Thursday -- opens with several actors bemoaning the state of the country, sitting in what appears to be a dark parking garage. (The ad maker confirmed the men and women were actors.)

The individuals who appear in the spot are polished speakers — perhaps too much so for some tastes.

“The first thing New Hampshire voters are going to wonder is, ‘Are these folks from New Hampshire? Who are they?’” said Rich Killion, a former New Hampshire adviser to Tim Pawlenty and longtime top political strategist.

“I think it's very dangerous to use actors in ads in Iowa or New Hampshire,” said Pat Griffin, a New Hampshire-based strategist and CEO of political advertising firm Griffin York & Krause. "That looks like a national spot for a guy running a singular state campaign with Screen Actors Guild actors.”

Our Destiny PAC released its first ad, titled "Someone," highlighting "consistent conservative Jon Huntsman."

But the ad is certainly dramatic, and that may go a long way for a candidate like Huntsman who has struggled to create excitement.

“The first ad has to be noticed and have an impact, which it does,” said Alex Castellanos, a longtime Republican media consultant and top adviser to the 2004 George W. Bush and 2008 Romney campaigns. “They do a very good job introducing Huntsman as not just a personality, but a man of accomplishment.”

“When people are slightly dissatisfied with the Republican field, [this ad] allows you a moment of joyous discovery, that maybe there is a solution to this,” Castellanos told NBC News.

On the ground, some voters are already responding.

John Maurice, a registered independent, spied the advertisement at home on television and decided to see Huntsman in person at a recent town hall meeting in Derry.

“I think the grumpy old guy at the beginning wasn’t overly impressive, but I like the idea he’s trying to get his name there, like ‘Why haven’t I heard of this guy?’ is the favorable thing at the end of it,” Maurice told NBC News.

“I like that he’s trying to get his message out. I think he’s a smart man who has been overlooked in this beauty contest,” said Maurice, as he waited for Huntsman to begin speaking.

As the primary nears, New Hampshire voters are likely to see many more candidates hit the airwaves. Already, Rick Perry, Ron Paul and (on cable) Fred Karger have run spots introducing themselves.

When asked how the Huntsman ad stacks up against Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s “Doer” spots, Castellanos said he sees more potential upside for Huntsman. “Perry’s ads are good but they have a tougher job. Perry’s ads have to change something you already know about a candidate,” Castellanos said. “Huntsman is pretty much a blank slate. Writing on a blank slate is easier.”

Though they are undoubtedly useful, television advertisements alone are unlikely to swing many undecided voters. Analysts here agree that the candidate’s substance and presence matters more than smooth advertisements, even if they play during primetime.

"New Hampshire voters are moved entirely on message,” New Hampshire-based strategist Killion said. “Obviously they're going to want to like or respect the messenger, but at the end of the day they're going to be drawn by the message that it is driving the mood of this electorate, which is one that has deep concern about the direction which the country is headed in.”

With little money in the campaign’s own bank account, Huntsman is unlikely to be able to afford to finance his own advertisements anytime soon, unless he adds to the over $2 million from his own pocket that he has already contributed to his campaign. But if he has any realistic hope of closing the gap in New Hampshire, Huntsman needs to stay on the air here.

"Huntsman needs this right now, he needs name ID and awareness," Griffin said.

With surprisingly little competition on the New Hampshire airwaves as frontrunner Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, has thus far decided to conserve his resources, a bigger Huntsman presence on TV could also have a quicker influence on the polls than it otherwise might.

“The airwaves right now, they are actually rather uncluttered of stuff, so anything that's up is going to have an effect,” Killion said.

“Don’t stop,” advised Castellanos. “Because McDonald’s wouldn’t sell another hamburger if they weren’t on the air every day.”