MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina — Jon Huntsman gave up one of the great jobs in American government, the Ambassadorship to Beijing, for one of the worst presidential campaigns in memory.
Now there's no going back. He's burned his bridges with the Obama Administration and with some of his own party's conservatives. But many Republican observers, including those close to Huntsman, believe there is a way forward.
Anytime you see a Republican candidate exciting younger voters, bringing them into politics, as Huntsman did in this campaign, you know he's got a future,” the Republican media consultant Alex Castellanos told BuzzFeed. “There is a Republican Party out there that's fiscally conservative, strong on security but more libertarian on social issues. In a few years, Huntsman could run on "freedom nationally, values locally" campaign and win the Republican nomination.”
Huntsman’s platform was out of place in the 2012 field — a moderate trying to lead a sea of angry and frustrated conservatives. His message of fiscal conservatism and bipartisanships was out of sync with Republicans who see 2012 as a year that does not require compromise. He embraced science and largely ignored the the social issues that still define a large wing of the GOP. "To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy," he tweeted last year, a virtual eye-roll at his rivals.
And yet Huntsman got out early enough to earn some gratitude from the likely nominee, Governor Mitt Romney, an older man with a similar profile who had been a quietly bitter rival. He maintained warm relations with conservatives like Texas Gov. Rick Perry, against whom his campaign was positioned, perhaps because he wasn't competing for their votes. He won the regard of the Republican mainstream for directing his fiercest attacks at Rep. Ron Paul, a true outsider who placed second in New Hampshire by drawing the independents Huntsman had sought.
Huntsman, one state Republican Party chairman who asked that his name not be used said, has played his cards well enough to serve another round in government, as a high-level Mandarin-speaking trade expert.
"I’m sure he will be doing fine in a Romney administration if there is one," the official said. "I’m sure [it] will suit him well.”
That's a guess based on the assumption that their stated differences on China -- Romney has pressed for confrontation, Huntsman for engagement -- are mere campaign positioning, set to evaporate with today's endorsement here in South Carolina.
And while Huntsman looks ahead, some in his party aren't eager to welcome him back.
Huntsman did himself "far more harm than good," said Keith Appell, a conservative Republican consultant, in an email. "He should've been smart enough to recognize the deep frustration with Obama not only among GOP/conservative grassroots but also among Independents. He bought in far too much to the Democrat/media elite line that the Tea Party was a problem instead of a manifestation of the frustration with Obama. Either he is really so delusional that he could allow someone like [consultant John] Weaver to convince him this was doable, or he really has no clue where the party (and the country?) is."
"This is a classic crash and burn," he said.
Indeed, Huntsman's path to a presidential nomination in 2016 or 2020 is utterly hazy. "They've got a bench full of superstars," a Huntsman supporter noted gloomily Sunday night. "Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, Marco Rubio -- I'm not sure where he fits in."
But presidential politics are always hazy, and the long game is the only game. That's the one to which Huntsman's backers are already looking.
"Jon is too classy a guy to be happy playing the spoiler," said Ana Navarro, a Florida Republican who was a prominent McCain supporter in 2008. "He came to the realization and acceptance that it wasn't his time -- this time.”
Huntsman's daughters tweeted this morning: "Many flames burn out in politics, our Dad's has just been ignited."