What's Behind Jon Hunstman for President 2012?

The Manchurian candidate cometh.

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Jon Huntsman, the Republican former governor of Utah currently serving as U.S. ambassador to China, is reportedly expected to resign his post in the near future. Apparently he has an eye on replacing his boss, and I don’t mean Hillary Clinton at State. Huntsman has reportedly already assembled a presidential campaign team (heavy on John McCain veterans) so a Huntsman 2012 bid could indeed be in the offing.

This has caused a Huntsman ’12 boomlet--but perhaps not of the variety the ambassador wants. It’s a “huh?” boomlet.

The Wash ington Post’s Ezra Klein concisely sums up the reaction to Huntsman:

Can someone sketch me out an even moderately plausible scenario in which a moderate Republican governor who broke with his party on civil unions and cap-and-trade and then joined the Obama administration wins both the GOP nomination and the presidential election in 2012?

Hot Air’s Ed Morrissey for one takes Huntsman seriously, noting that White House strategists may have been “too clever by half” in sending the Utah GOPer to China in the first place.

In fact, they may have done themselves more damage than good. Putting Huntsman in China would give him more credibility in foreign policy than just about any of the other presumed candidates in the GOP race except for John Bolton. Even if Huntsman doesn’t win the nomination, criticism of Obama’s “smart diplomacy” from within the fold--especially from the man who managed the key relationship with the nation that holds a large chunk of our debt--will do significant damage to Obama in a general election.

The Post's Chris Cillizza also makes a plausible case for a Huntsman candidacy.

So as Klein asks, what’s being whispered in Huntsman’s ear? Here are four theories, of varying degrees of plausibility, of why Huntsman’s making a go in 2012.

* With most of the rest of the potential GOP field falling over themselves to please the Tea Party, perhaps Huntsman sees a path to the nomination through the party establishment. Under this scenario Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, and the rest split the Tea Party vote and try to out-nutty each other. The old guard establishment coalesces around the kind of reasonable face that that couldn’t be Sharron Angle’d if Obama is weak next fall. I speculated a few days ago that Mitt Romney may be taking this approach--with the former Massachusetts governor looking vulnerable, Team Huntsman might sense an opportunity.

* Even if a Huntsman bid fails, it could get him into the conversation for the number two spot on the GOP ticket. Whoever does win the nomination will have to tack back to the middle and will have little foreign policy experience. A moderate who got elected in a highly conservative state and has strong foreign policy credentials could be very desirable. Even a failed vice presidential bid would set him up nicely for 2016. Speaking of...

* The Atlantic’s Joshua Green makes a case that a 2012 run is really about 2016:

So why run in 2012 if the real goal is 2016? Because it often takes more than one try to win the nomination. Look at John McCain. Or Mitt Romney. Or even the sainted Ronald Reagan. It's probably even harder for a rookie to win it today than it was in Reagan's time, given the explosion of media, the unending and overwhelming scrutiny, and the resulting pressure on candidates. Presumably, Romney will be a better candidate this time around because he's had the experience of running once before. If Huntsman runs and loses in 2012, he'll probably be a better candidate in 2016, and the political climate might also be more favorable for him then.

* Finally there’s what we’ll call the “Manchurian Candidate” scenario, if you wanted to get deep into out-there conspiracy theories. If you were in the White House and thought that Obama’s reelection chances would be maximized by a nutty Tea Partyer getting the GOP nod, wouldn’t you want moderate GOP candidates running to prevent, say, Mitt Romney from having a clear shot at the establishment field? (The Atlantic's Green makes the counter-argument, saying that Huntsman helps Romney; he argues that Romney is currently dangerously close to Obama because of the individual mandate in the healthcare law. Huntsman would automatically become someone closer to Obama.)