Washington • One year from today, Iowa residents will storm their local high schools, city halls and other caucus locales to select their choice for the Republican presidential nomination.
And if Jon Huntsman Jr. wants the nod, he best get moving.
Utah's former governor plans to leave his post as U.S. ambassador to China by the end of April and return to the states to decide whether to mount a White House bid.
But while Huntsman has spent the past 18 months in Beijing, other potential 2012 contenders have traveled to Des Moines and Manchester and other small towns that will have a big say in the GOP primary contest.
Many, like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, ex-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty or former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, could announce their formal campaigns before Huntsman's resignation becomes official, leaving him to catch up to better-known and more-established candidates.
Huntsman doesn't yet have an official campaign staff, but several longtime national strategists have had early discussions of what a bid would look like and how they would promote Utah's former governor. He may not be well-known, but he's also a fresh face in a race that's so far filled with contenders who have been around for quite some time.
"There's a certain amount of boredom and worry with the current crop of candidates," says one of Huntsman's top cheerleaders, a strategist working behind the scenes. "So we understand we're like this bright and shiny object but we have to if there is a campaign we have to move forward and add some meat to the bones to earn people's support."
Huntsman could formally announce his presidential bid after the Ames, Iowa, straw poll in August, leaving him only a few months to introduce himself to voters, but Huntsman's team says it can ramp up quickly. Fred Davis, a much-sought-after Republican media consultant, for example, is already on board if Huntsman takes the dive.
In reality, Huntsman needs only to introduce himself to residents of four early states in the beginning: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
"You're not talking about a national campaign, you're talking about a series of state campaigns," says the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because there is no formal campaign organization yet and he didn't want to damage relations with other contenders.
So far, though, Huntsman is barely a blip on the primary radar.
Iowa • This small Midwestern state is the first test of most presidential bids, and voters not only expect to meet the contenders but also grill them on various issues.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucuses in 2008, has been a repeat visitor and already chimes in at nearly 30 percent of voters in the most recent polls. Romney grabs about 18 percent. Huntsman, on the other hand, hasn't been seen in corn country for a few years and hasn't been considered in any polls there.
"That's his big problem at this point: I'm a guy who follows this stuff pretty regularly and I didn't know who he was," says Tim Hagle, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. "That doesn't mean he has no chance, but he's got a lot of work."
If Huntsman jumps in, he'll likely be spending a good amount of time in the Hawkeye State, where Republican voters are considered very conservative on social issues and want their candidates to show how they've governed before.
So far, there isn't a clear choice, Hagle says, and Huntsman could catch a break as the newbie in the race.
"Nobody is really catching fire with people," he says, noting that "gives opportunity for the lesser-known folks" like Huntsman.
Meanwhile, Romney's LDS faith may have dimmed his hopes of carrying the caucus vote in 2008, and the former head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City even noted that had he been a Baptist minister like Huckabee, he might have fared better.
As a Mormon from Utah, the hurdle could be tougher for Huntsman, though some political experts say Romney may have already helped negate some of the concern in his previous race.
Faith isn't as much of an issue in the next state to hold a presidential contest.
New Hampshire • This New England state hosts the nation's first primary and it, too, comes down to retail politics forcing serious candidates to drive even to the most remote burgs to glad-hand voters.
But observers say what religion a candidate follows is less important here as most people keep their faith private. In fact, Romney, who owns a vacation home in the state, is topping polls here.
Other candidates have started putting together teams in the Granite State and locking up potential supporters. Huntsman's previous visit was in the 2008 presidential campaign, when he stumped for Sen. John McCain.
"New Hampshire likes to have people come up here," says Tom Rath, who shepherded then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush through the 2000 primary and supported Romney's bid three years ago. Candidates really have to invest time in the state, Rath says.
Huntsman could still do fine in the primary, however, given that independent voters can vote for the GOP nominee.
"[Huntsman]may have a low name recognition, but he probably has a zero negative recognition, too," Rath says, adding that even if voters may be leaning toward one of the current candidates, "New Hampshire is a state that gives everybody a chance to make their case."
After New Hampshire's primary expected on Feb. 14, 2012 the campaign will shift to the Mountain West.
Nevada • Huntsman's best chance may come in the caucuses of this Utah neighbor, which has a sizable population of Mormons.
"I think where he might have to overcome the religious issue in other states, he wouldn't have to deal with that in Nevada," says Robert Uithoven, a Nevada GOP strategist who most recently ran Senate candidate Sue Lowden's campaign. "A stronger problem for [Huntsman] will be Mitt Romney."
That's because the two Mormons may be fighting over votes from their fellow faithful. Romney won the state in 2008 with more than 55 percent of the vote.
On the other hand, Nevada isn't a winner-take-all state and the second-place finisher could wind up with some Republican delegates.
Huntsman also spent a good amount of time there in 2008 stumping for McCain and hit cities all over the state. Then again, Uithoven says, Huntsman's link to McCain could be detrimental because the 2008 nominee was also considered too moderate for some conservatives.
If Huntsman survives the first three, it's on to the first Southern test of the presidential race.
South Carolina • The former Utah governor could face challenges here because of his support for civil unions (he opposes gay marriage) and his service in the Obama administration as U.S. ambassador to China. The state also has a big population of evangelical Protestants who don't consider members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be Christians.
Even so, South Carolina GOP strategist Tony Denny doesn't see Huntsman's faith becoming a major issue and even questions whether it was much of a factor in 2008 when Romney's religion may have factored into his unsuccessful bid.
"This is a different environment than the one Mitt Romney ran in four years ago," Denny says. "You can't make the same assumptions."
Like the other states, Huntsman still needs to field a good team in the state and has already locked up Richard Quinn, McCain's strategist from 2008.
"He has a long way to go, but so do the rest of them," Denny says.
Denny says this presidential cycle is taking off much slower than previous ones and there's no clear front-runner who has snatched up all the attention, so Huntsman may have an opening.
"The truth is, he hasn't missed anything," Denny says. "I don't think there's a lot of people who have made their pick already."
After South Carolina, it's off to the races in a series of state contests to settle who nabs the nomination. The results in these four early states, however, will likely determine who ends up facing President Barack Obama in the general election.
Jon Huntsman Jr.
Age • 50
Wife •Mary Kaye
Children •Seven, including two adopted daughters
Experience • Elected twice as governor of Utah. Resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China in May 2009.
If Huntsman runs, what would he face?
Winning the presidential nomination is not as simple as grabbing the most votes nationwide. A series of state tests, starting with Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina, determine who among a wide field of candidates will grab the Republican nomination.
If Jon Huntsman Jr. decides to seek the White House, he'll be starting out late with little name recognition, though it's not an insurmountable challenge, according to strategists.
Huntsman's resignation as U.S. ambassador to China is effective April 30, and the former Utah governor is expected to return to the states and test the waters for a presidential run. Should he decide to dive in, his announcement could come shortly after August's straw poll in Ames, Iowa, according to those familiar with his plans.