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What Jon Huntsman did instead of debate



LONDONDERRY, N.H. -- Jon Huntsman missed the Republican debate in Iowa Saturday night and, frankly, he didn't seem to care.

Remaining unabashedly confident that he has a shot at the GOP presidential nomination despite a one-state strategy and single-digit poll numbers, the former Utah governor deployed sharp language in a town hall-style meeting with voters during which he bashed Mitt Romney and Donald Trump and declared that all he needs to win is New Hampshire.

Huntsman was not invited to the ABC News-Des Moines Register-Iowa GOP debate because he did meet the minimum 5-percent support required in either a national or Iowa poll. Huntsman is focused exclusively in New Hampshire after rolling back a multi-state strategy this fall. He has never campaigned in Iowa.

"They're engaging in another evening of theatrics and game show-like discussions," Huntsman said ahead of Saturday night's GOP debate, after speaking to more than 150 voters at Londonderry High School. "We're here on the ground in New Hampshire talking real issues with real voters. I feel we are exactly where we ought to be, this is what needs to be done. We're doing the New Hampshire primary."

This is the second national debate that Huntsman has missed since he entered the race. Yet again, he replaced the missed opportunity with a simultaneous New Hampshire campaign event. Earlier this fall, Huntsman boycotted a Republican debate in Las Vegas in order to show solidarity with the New Hampshire's status as the first-in-the-nation primary. In lieu of Nevada, he took questions from voters in Hopkinton. Later, the Nevada state GOP moved its contest to a later date after pressure from the national Republican party leadership.

Huntsman joked he may not tune into the debate at all.

"I can't make any promises, it depends on if Curb Your Enthusiasm is on at the same time," he told reporters.

In a standard stump speech covering a variety of domestic and international issues, Huntsman repeatedly called for substantive dialogue in a race that has seen more than a dozen debates televised and half a dozen front-runners. The upcoming December 27 NewsMax debate, hosted by Donald Trump, was his latest example.

"We were the first to say we wouldn't do it. I got attacked by Mr. Trump and we attacked him back. I simply said to him, 'If Trump had any cojones, you would be in this race and not trying to manipulate it from the sideline,'" he told a packed auditorium.

"Then, of course five days later, Mr. Romney made his decision after carefully evaluating the environments," Huntsman said, needling the former Massachusetts governor's decision time to laughter and applause.

So far, all candidates have declined Trump's invitation, except for Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich who committed to the event.

But it won't be long before Huntsman faces off in another debate of his own. On Monday, Huntsman meets former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for a one-on-one Lincoln-Douglas style forum at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire.

"I think having a substantive debate with Newt Gingrich on Monday is the kind of thing that we should be doing. Delving into the issues in an unedited fashion and primarily giving people of this early state a little sense of what we believe and where we're going to take this country," Huntsman said.

The former Ambassador to China holds the most direct and diverse set of foreign policy credentials in the GOP field, but said on Saturday that he is not fully informed of Gingrich's positions on major foreign policy issues.

"I don't know where his policies lie," Huntsman told reporters. "He's been a little back-and-forth on Libya. He's been a little back-and-forth on Afghanistan. He's been a little back-and-forth on Russia with respect to Putin. But we'll see. I don't yet understand his fully developed foreign policy."

As for future bilateral debates with other rivals, Huntsman and his campaign say they welcome a face-off with the rest of the field.

"We try to bring in anyone who wanted to engage in a smaller forum, a more intimate setting with kind of a wide open format. And Newt was the only one who was willing to do that," Huntsman told NBC News on Saturday.

When asked if the Huntsman campaign had challenged New Hampshire frontrunner Mitt Romney to a similar debate, Huntsman said he would be open to arranging an opportunity for a verbal spar.

"I am in this race because I fundamentally feel the American people are getting screwed," he told voters Saturday evening.