Next for Huntsman: Senate bid? Romney Cabinet? 2016?
Washington • In ending his 2012 presidential quest, Jon Huntsman vowed Monday that he wouldn't abandon the vision he has promoted, signaling that he might launch a new political action committee to press those issues.
"Today our campaign for the presidency ends, but our campaign to build a better and more trustworthy America continues," Huntsman said. "I will never stop fighting for her and fighting to ensure that America's light shines bright for generations and generations to come."
The former Utah governor has many options as he walks away from the Republican presidential race: Run for the Senate? Step back into business? Aim for a Cabinet or other government post?
Huntsman, who jumped from steering state government in the Beehive State to heading the U.S. Embassy in China to pursuing the White House in New Hampshire, may not know himself what awaits after a brief respite with family members.
"He could do anything he'd like," said second-term Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who served as Huntsman's gubernatorial chief of staff. "He's going to be formidable in anything he does."
Some Utah political observers have hinted that Huntsman could return to the state and challenge six-term Sen. Orrin Hatch for his seat, though such a possibility could be blunted by the difficult task the more-moderate challenger would face getting past right-leaning Republican delegates.
"It's too late for him to get into the race for Orrin's Senate seat," said former Sen. Bob Bennett, who lost his bid for a fourth term at the 2010 convention. "And even if he did run, based on our polling of 2010 delegates, he's less popular with those delegates than I was. ... Those tea-party-types really, really don't like him."
Huntsman, who recently purchased a condominium in downtown Salt Lake City and a home in Washington, D.C., slammed the door himself Monday to a third-party or independent drive for the presidency by endorsing Republican front-runner Mitt Romney.
"You don't endorse a candidate the way he's endorsing Romney," Bennett said, "and then turn around and say I didn't really mean it because I can get the nomination from another party."
Huntsman may have killed any chances at returning to a spot in President Barack Obama's administration after criticizing his former boss on the stump and resigning his ambassadorship to mount a bid against him. But he could land in a Romney White House if the Republicans win back the Oval Office.
"Huntsman would be glad to serve in the next administration," said Kirk Jowers, a friend and backer of Romney and head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Although Huntsman and Romney went toe to toe at times especially in recent weeks over the ex-ambassador's service under Obama Jowers doesn't see any campaign clashes between the two that would hinder a Huntsman hiring.
"From what I know of Romney, he's incredibly magnanimous and very focused on doing what's right for the country," Jowers said. "I don't think Huntsman has burned any bridges with Romney."
When Huntsman initially entered the presidential race, many observers suggested he could be angling for raising his name identification with voters for a 2016 White House bid. Moving out of the way of Romney's steamrolling candidacy could pay off down the road if Obama is re-elected and the GOP nomination is open again in four years.
But that's not necessarily an easy path for Huntsman, said Bennett, noting that the former Utah governor didn't make as much progress with voters as Romney did in 2008, when he won several states and essentially came in second.
"He would have to reintroduce himself," Bennett added, "unlike the way Romney came into 2012."
Previous presidential hopefuls have parlayed their presidential bids into talk shows, book sales and, an increasingly popular choice, a political group that keeps pushing their campaign themes.
In 2004, former Democratic contender Howard Dean started Democracy for America to continue his efforts. This year, failed GOP hopeful Herman Cain began a group called Cain's Solutions Revolution to promote his 9-9-9 tax plan.
Huntsman pledged Monday to push for a flatter, simpler tax code; to wean America off its addiction to foreign oil; to reform education laws; to break up too-big-to-fail banks; and to enact term limits for members of Congress.
"And we will continue fighting to bring home our brave men and women from Afghanistan," Huntsman said, "and stop nation-building overseas and start rebuilding our own nation."
John Weaver, Huntsman's top political strategist, praised his candidate for advancing "terrifically bold" remedies for tough issues facing America at home and abroad.
"I expect to see him continue to push on with some policy fronts," Weaver said.
Huntsman is expected to take time off now to be with his family, aides said, and has no plans beyond that break.