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Even though you need an electron microscope to find Jon Huntsman's poll numbers — Wednesday's Gallup had him at a whole 1 percent in a nine-way Republican presidential field — the political punditosphere just can't quit its fascination with the Mandarin Candidate.

Of course, when a lot of the admiration for the former Utah governor's campaign comes from people who are already recommending him for a posthumous commendation in the face of overwhelming political foolishness and radicalism, it is possible to question the old adage that any publicity is good publicity.

In recent days, Huntsman has taken to the airwaves, the Web and Twitter to declare that he is just what the media wants him to be. The grown-up in the room. The one who understands that human-caused climate change is real, that evolution is a fact, that it would have been a very, very bad idea for the federal government to default on its debt payments and that any politician who promises $2 gas is just not running with a full tank.

"Call me crazy," Huntsman tweets. And the media obliges.

Huntsman went out of his way to disagree with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who shot to the top of the same Gallup poll barely a week after formally entering the race, about climate and biological science. He continues to portray himself as a reasonable guy in a year when his party's activists see reason as a weakness.

That image was undercut a bit by Huntsman's fresh anti-abortion statements and his ever-so-brief consideration of the notion that he might serve as Michele Bachmann's running mate. (Maybe he thinks that the best thing he could do, given the opportunity, would be to serve as Bachmann's regent/mentor, really doing what Dick Cheney was going to do for W. before 9/11 totally unhinged him.)

Still, in the 'sphere, the reaction was that Huntsman is not, cannot be, really trying to win the GOP nomination in 2012. Moderately conservative pundits such as David Frum and Andrew Sullivan imagine that he's really positioning himself to run in 2016. By then, the thinking goes, the party will have begun to pick itself out of the ruins of a Goldwater-like defeat suffered by its Perry/Bachmann ticket and will look to the guy they should have nominated last time.

Or, as posited by such disparate voices as Alyssa Rosenberg at the liberal Think Progress and Andrew Mellon at the conservative Big Government blogs, Huntsman has an even more unusual gambit in mind. He will make a show of trying to bring the Republicans back to the course of reason, bemoan the party's apparent willingness to drive the economy into the ground and become the modern anti-science, know-nothing party, then realize he can best serve the nation by running as an independent.

To those who cannot trust Huntsman because he actually worked for President Obama as his ambassador to China, the outcome of such a move would be to split the Republican and the anti-Obama votes and return the incumbent to office for four more years. Which, to the conspiracy minded, is the whole point.

Of course, there's the plan that Huntsman claims to be following. It's that the Iowa GOP electorate, where so much of the attention is now focused, is not only to the right of the country, but to the right of the party as found in such other key states as New Hampshire and Florida.

And, as Huntsman says, it is really far too early for anyone to declare any winners and losers. As Presidents Michael Dukakis, John McCain and Hillary Rodham Clinton can attest.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, has only 25,555 fewer Twitter followers (@debatestate) than Jon Huntsman does. Email: