Huntsman a Heartthrob in D.C., But Not S.C.

GREENVILLE, S.C. -- So what’s with all the buzz about the socially moderate, Obama appointee in the Republican presidential field?

Apparently not much.

Jon Huntsman, the former Utah Governor just back from a tour as the Obama administration’s ambassador to China, is one of the most discussed members of the potential GOP 2012 field, but only outside the Republican Party.

Establishment media outlets, the president and his staff talk about Huntsman and his potential candidacy a lot, but here in South Carolina on the night of the first 2012 debate, no one was talking about the moderate Mormon.

As Republicans in blue blazers mingled with Tea Party types in rattlesnake t-shirts, there was lot of talk about the candidates who had taken a pass on the debate. Would Mitt Romney make a serious play for the Palmetto State or try to blow past the conservative stronghold in between prospective wins in New Hampshire and Florida? Is Newt Gingrich really serious about running? Has Mike Huckabee made up his mind? Even Indiana’s mild-mannered Gov. Mitch Daniels was an object of some fascination.

But Huntsman, who is wickedly wealthy from his family’s chemical business and gearing up for a serious campaign, was not discussed. Even with Huntsman slated to speak two days later at the University of South Carolina’s commencement, Republicans needed prompting to talk about his chances.

One self-described “good-old boy Republican” who has floated around the state party apparatus for decades told me that Huntsman was a “non-factor” in South Carolina.

“Gay marriage [Huntsman actually supports civil unions] and Obama,” said another participant in the conservative carnival on the streets outside the debate hall. Of a dozen or so folks at or around the debate, only eight had a good fix on who Huntsman even was.

If Republican political junkies are dismissive and national polls of Republicans show Huntsman in a tie for last place at 1 percent with former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson (the same Gary Johnson who interrupted the debate to ask for more questions) why are the political pages of major newspapers brimming with talk about him?

Part of the fact is that with his resume and personal wealth, Huntsman demands to be taken seriously. His campaign in waiting has gobbled up top-drawer staffers and consultants who have been aggressive with political journalists about cultivating some excitement around the potential candidacy. When you read a story about the former governor’s high-school rock band and how he wasn’t as straight-laced as some of his Mormon brethren, you know the press shop is already working well.

Another part, though, is that Huntsman is the kind of candidate who political journalists love to cover. They talk about his good looks, his good education, his international perspective, his maverick sensibilities and, most of all, how he isn’t a “typical Republican.”

Reporters used to like Sen. John McCain, but then he became too much like a “typical Republican” and they started deploring him. Neither did it help McCain that in 2008 he was opposing the political candidate that most excited the Washington press corps since Jack Kennedy gave garden parties.

Another reason for all the Washington buzz about Huntsman is that the White House has been working hard to generate it. Obama’s political consigliore David Plouffe had said that the team feared Huntsman more than any other potential rival before Obama tapped him for the China gig. Establishment reporters oohed and ahed at how Obama had eliminated a 2012 rival.

And as Huntsman’s China posting has wound down, the president, his chief of staff and other have taken seemingly every opportunity to make reference to Huntsman’s potential candidacy, usually in the form of a joke about how Huntsman’s service in the administration will turn off conservative voters.

When the president picks on Romney’s health care law, he is trying to hurt Romney. Everybody knows who Romney is and he stands to be a tough combatant for Obama if he can survive the primaries. And when Obama brings up Romneycare, he’s trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.

But when Obama mentions Huntsman, it is helpful. The old line about “no such thing as bad publicity” isn’t true if you’re already famous. But if you are a political unknown like Huntsman, anything that builds name identification is a good thing.

Is the White House trying to hurt Romney by pushing Huntsman out? They are both businessmen, both Mormons and both considered more moderate than the rest of the field. A high-priced bid by Huntsman would surely mean more difficulty for Romney. Not only would he have to woo conservatives but fight to keep his own base.

Whatever the games being played from Boston to Beijing are all about, it hasn’t seeped into the collective consciousness of the South Carolina electorate. One South Carolina Republican – a middle-aged woman with a sparkly elephant pin – when asked about Huntsman asked if he is “the one that wants to legalize pot.”

When told she might be thinking about libertarian Johnson, the woman emitted a peal of laughter and said “whoever.”

Chris Stirewalt is FOX News’ digital politics editor. His political note, Power Play, is available every weekday morning at FOXNEWS.COM.