Jon Huntsman
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the current beneficiary of Republican voters' perpetual search for an alternative to Mitt Romney, and he's enjoying the amplified media attention that accompanies a rise in the polls. If he declines, is Huntsman next? Or is it time to write-off the former Utah governor? Flickr

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is the current beneficiary of Republican voters' perpetual search for an alternative to Mitt Romney, and he's enjoying the amplified media coverage that accompanies a rise in the polls.

There's a familiar pattern at work here. The farthest right portion of the Republican primary electorate -- a cohort that includes the nebulous constellation of beliefs labeled the Tea Party -- flits from one non-Romney candidate to another, lingering until the latest choice stumbles badly (Herman Cain) or fails a test of ideological purity (Rick Perry signing off on in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants).

Latest 'Surger' - Gingrich

Perry and Cain have already followed the arc of ascent and decline, as did Michele Bachmann before them. Now it's Gingrich's turn, but he has already run into trouble. Revelations about his lucrative consulting work for Freddie Mac has drawn scrutiny and scorn from left and right and his embrace of an individual mandate puts him on the wrong side of an issue that crystallizes the right's critique of the federal government overreaching. At some point he will need to address these issues, departing from his typical debating strategy of scolding the moderators.

If Gingrich's surge proves ephemeral, the non-Romney options will have dwindled to Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Jon Huntsman. Santorum is staking his hopes on an appeal to social values during an election that will hinge on the economy. Paul will continue to attract a devoted legion of followers, but despite his staunch libertarian views increasingly permeating mainstream conservative thought he likely remains too much of a fringe candidate to enjoy broad support.

That leaves Huntsman. The former Utah governor initially attracted a good deal of media attention, but his campaign has sputtered since the beginning. His prominent breaks with party orthodoxy, which included chiding fellow Republicans who question the scientific basis for evolution and climate change, failed to extricate him from single-digit poll numbers. Neither did some sterling conservative credentials that include a strict anti-abortion stance, an economic plan that emphasizes deregulation and tax cuts and his endorsement of Rep. Paul Ryan (D-WI)'s controversial plan to restructure Medicare.

Huntsman's window is swiftly closing, but he still has an opportunity to cast himself as the better alternative to another silver-haired Mormon ex-governor. Foreign policy figures to be a prominent topic in Tuesday night's debate, giving Huntsman a chance to showcase one of his strengths and to demonstrate why serving as ambassador to China was an asset, even if was under the Obama administration. Huntsman has been nearly invisible during most debates, but a forceful performance could elevate him lead moderators to give him more questions in future rounds.

Huntsman's Time?

This is Huntsman's opportunity to shine, GOP strategist Alex Castellanos told CNN. If Huntsman can bigfoot Romney or Gingrich on a foreign policy question, he can move into the set of serious contenders.

Ultimately, Huntsman's hopes reside in New Hampshire. Since choosing to eschew Iowa he has focused all his effort on winning the Granite State, by his own estimate putting in more than 100 visits. He still lags behind other candidates there, registering a paltry 9 percent in the latest Suffolk University poll.

If those numbers accurately predict the results of the New Hampshire primary, it may be time to begin writing Huntsman's post-mortem. A television advertisement by the Our Destiny PAC aptly captures his predicament, positioning Huntsman as the unknown candidate poised to rescue dissatisfied voters who worry that no one has show up that we can trust as a conservative.

Why haven't we heard of this guy? a man asks at the close of the ad. Huntsman's advisors are surely wondering the same thing.