Since last year’s Republican wipeout, Huntsman has criticized of the party the way McCain once did. Galled by the stranglehold of the religious right, he has challenged the party to open itself up to young voters and new ideas. He’s a fan of motocross, and has a collection of guitars and drums in the basement of the governor’s mansion. His message resonated in some quarters, and his national profile in recent months had climbed, as Republicans from around the country approached him for speaking engagements and urging him to run for the White House. He met recently with former McCain strategist John Weaver, architect of McCain’s insurgent 2000 campaign and an adviser on the 2008 reprise.
The China dispatch maybe be a short-term detour, but one with little downside. “2012 looked almost impossible for him, despite how well he’d been doing getting publicity,” says Kirk Jowers, a University of Utah political science professor and attorney who has worked with both the McCain and Romney camps. Huntsman supported for federal stimulus (unlike Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford), which makes him a hard-sell with primary votes, and having Romney in the campaign could split the Mormon donor base both men would lean on.