Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the new book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns."
(CNN) -- The "conservagencia" is starting to give Jon Huntsman a second look. He deserves it. But the stirrings of respect may be too little, too late. Too bad, because he might stand the best chance of beating President Barack Obama.
RINO hunting has become a reflexive sport inside the Republican Party. And so when Jon Huntsman entered the presidential race, the impulse was to smack him on style points as a Republican in Name Only. It made some sense on the surface -- after all, he was the former Obama ambassador to China, in addition to being the conservative former governor of Utah. At a time when tea party enthusiasm tended toward the hot, Huntsman was cool, promising a campaign of civility and ideas.
He seemed to be courting independents and centrists at the outset of the GOP primary, openly dissing the anti-intellectualism of conservative populist candidates such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann. In one infamous tweet, he pined: "I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy."
All this was very out of step with the partisan tone of the times. And so his actual record as governor and his policy plans as candidate were overlooked. Forget the record of cutting taxes, reforming government, improving the business climate and balancing the budget. Forget that he was the one candidate with real-world foreign policy experience. He was an apostate in a cult-like atmosphere where any dissent is seen as disloyalty.
No one was happier than the White House, which was apparently most worried about running against Huntsman ("I think our guys were worried about Huntsman. I think he was the one who people were most worried about" recounted one Obama aide in Politico writer Mike Allen's and author Evan Thomas' new e-book, "The Right Fights Back").
So Huntsman had the buzz but no support -- he seemed stuck in the low single digits and even would-be supporters shrugged their shoulders.
It seemed to say more about the current makeup of the Republican Party than it did about Jon Huntsman.
After all, he was the first candidate to embrace U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's plan for deficit reduction. His jobs plan was touted by The Wall Street Journal in uncommon terms: "Mr. Huntsman's proposal is as impressive as any to date in the GOP Presidential field, and certainly better than what we've seen from the front-runners." He even had the guts to proclaim a determination to end the collusion and market distortion of "Too Big to Fail"-- a cause that could unite Tea Partiers and Occupy protesters.
But even though 70% of Republican primary voters say that economic issues are their primary focus, Huntsman's conservative substance could not seem to override the centrist style: He would not pander or throw radioactive red meat.
Even the statistical analysis by the fivethirtyeight blog at The New York Times, which found Huntsman would have the best chance of actually beating Obama in the 2012 general election, did not seem to change hearts and minds.
But as the revolving door of not-Romneys spun faster and faster, spitting out candidates from Bachmann and Perry to Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, a desperate search for an electable conservative alternative to Romney commenced.
And now, all of a sudden, the Utah governor has started to get some respect.
CNN contributor Will Cain was an early advocate of Huntsman's substantive record as a conservative, in contrast to the style he evinced at the start of his campaign.
"In this Republican primary, a candidate's conservativeness seems to be measured by his venom toward Barack Obama," Cain wrote in The Blaze. "And I'm afraid we've elevated style to such a degree that it's clouding our view of what is conservative."
RedState.org editor and CNN contributor Erik Erickson is another unexpected voice lately arguing that Huntsman might just be the real conservative in the race: "His record as a governor is more conservative than Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney combined. He is more pro-life than either of them. He is more economically wedded to the free market than either of them. He has better foreign policy experience than either of them. Huntsman should be a conservative hero in this race."
Conservative wise man George Will even seems to be making the case in comments delivered on the "Laura Ingraham Show," saying: "I think if you look at Jon Huntsman's record, what he's laid out, his proposals for taxes and the economy, his opposition to No Child Left Behind, you could make a case that he deserves a searching second look from conservatives. Huntsman's position on foreign policy is the most conservative. That is, it is the most modest in assessing the need and ability of the United States to control distant events."
Jon Huntsman is putting all his chips on New Hampshire, where he's been inching forward in the polls. Unlike the Iowa caucus, it's a state with an open primary where independents can vote and a principled center-right perspective might be rewarded.
Tonight he will get a chance to shine in a Lincoln-Douglas style debate with Gingrich in New Hampshire. It might prove to be a highlight of the 2012 campaign -- a substantive and civil debate about ideas, providing more light than heat.
As conservatives consider the choice between the two flawed front-runners, Gingrich and Romney, they might reconsider the wisdom of purging center-right candidates like Jon Huntsman on matters of style versus substance. In the process, they just might finally find the perfect marriage of ideology and electability for which they have been looking.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Avlon.