Are you ready for President Huntsman?

I wonder if there’s any alternate reality in which this guy winning the Republican nomination is plausible. Are there presidential primaries in, say, the Matrix? If he lands the coveted Neo endorsement, he might be able to squeak past Palin, Huckabee, and Morpheus in the Matrix Iowa caucuses.

Now, it appears, the ambassador is ready to make some noise of his own. Sitting in the echo-y living room of his new Washington home, Huntsman, a tall, lean man with silver hair and impeccable posture, pauses only briefly when faced with the question of presidential aspirations. “You know, I’m really focused on what we’re doing in our current position,” he says. “But we won’t do this forever, and I think we may have one final run left in our bones.” Asked whether he is prepared to rule out a run in 2012 (since it would require him to campaign against his current boss), he declines to comment.

The winking response—about as close to a hat-in-ring announcement as you’ll get from a sitting member of the incumbent’s administration—could just be a hollow cry for attention. But sources close to Huntsman (who requested anonymity to speak freely without his permission) say that during his December trip to the U.S., he met with several former political advisers in Washington and Salt Lake City to discuss a potential campaign. “I’m not saying he’s running,” says one supporter who has worked with him in the past. “But we’re a fire squad; if he says the word, we can get things going fast.” What’s more, Huntsman tells NEWSWEEK that when he accepted the ambassadorial appointment, he promised his family they would “come up for air” sometime in 2010 to decide how much longer they would stay in Beijing. “I’m not announcing anything at all,” he says. But he sure seems to be hinting.

Jay Cost notes that in a different era, when nominees could be drafted without having to campaign (much) and the parties weren’t so different ideologically, Huntsman might be kinda sorta viable. Today, though? Quote: “Huntsman would get squeezed on both ends. The mainstream media would inevitably tag him as an ambitious politician who betrayed his boss, while his Republican opponents would tell GOP primary voters that he is just a tool of Obama and the Democrats – the RINO to end all RINOs!” Quite so, and don’t forget that Huntsman won’t be the only Huntsman-type candidate in the race. If you’re looking for a competent, wonkish, pragmatic, centrist heartland governor who’s more interested in solving fiscal problems than fighting culture wars, why not choose Mitch Daniels instead? (Or Romney, if you don’t care about the heartland part. Or, er, RomneyCare.) In fact, to the extent that Huntsman makes any impact on the race at all, it would be as a de facto stalking horse for populist candidates like Palin or Huckabee. He’d peel Mormon voters away from Mitt and Daniels voters away from Mitch, weakening both of them in tight races in New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Florida. And surely he knows it. So why even drop hints like this?

A theory: Maybe he has his eye on a different race and is dropping phony hints about a presidential challenge to earn some free buzz from a media that’s hungry for 2012 stories. (Pence, who’s thinking of running for governor of Indiana, might be playing that game too.) Huntsman’s just 50 years old and likely figures that the political climate will be more favorable to centrists in 2016, especially if the GOP nominates a “true conservative” next year who ends up losing to Obama. He’s better off either following the Romney playbook and using his time out of office to work for Republican candidates behind the scenes or looking for an opening in a local race to get back onto the national stage. Back when Obama first named him ambassador, I speculated that he might run for Senate from Utah if either Bennett or Hatch retired; a primary challenge to entrenched Republican incumbents seemed unthinkable at the time. Two years later, though, Bennett’s been primaried into retirement and Hatch will assuredly face a primary challenge of his own, possibly from Jason Chaffetz. Huntsman, who left office with an approval rating over 80 percent despite being more centrist on social issues than many Utahns, might be thinking that if tea partiers knock off Hatch in the primary, he could run as an independent in the general and possibly pull off some sort of Murkowski-type victory by claiming the middle against a far right GOP nominee and a Democratic nonentity. Winning as an indie with real bipartisan cred after having served under Obama would make him an instant media darling — sort of like Bloomberg except way, way, waaaaay less annoying. Makes more sense, at least, than running for president now, which would be quixotic at best and … insane at worst.