THE SIGNIFICANCE OF HUNTSMAN’S MOVE…. Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman (R) was supposed to be spending quite a bit more time in New Hampshire and Iowa, not Beijing. And yet, Huntsman appears to have scrapped his 2012 plans to give up his governorship and become President Obama’s U.S. Ambassador to China.

I was speaking earlier with Michael Cohen via email, and he compared Huntsman’s move to Arlen Specter’s party switch.

“Specter is a hack who switched parties for his own cynical reasons — but for a guy like Huntsman in a safe state with a bright political future to basically say, ‘To hell with the GOP. I’ll spend a few years carrying water for a Democratic President’ … well, it just speaks volumes.

“Not only does it suggest that the GOP is alienating non-dogmatic conservative politicians, but it suggests that Huntsman basically considers the Republican Party, in the near-term, a lost cause. This is the kind of guy who could move Republicans to a more sensible middle ground and he doesn’t seem to have any interest at all. It’s the political equivalent (sort of) of Bill Clinton joining the Bush Administration in 1989.”

That sounds right to me. Huntsman has clearly been eyeing the 2012 Republican presidential race — he brought on John Weaver as a leading advisor for a reason — and even leading Dems like David Plouffe saw him as a pol to watch. Now, however, he’s not only giving up his job to serve overseas, he’s doing so for a Democratic president. “Rising stars” in Republican politics just don’t do this very often.

Seeing Huntsman alongside President Obama this morning at the White House, I kept thinking about an incident from a couple of weeks ago. Huntsman had scheduled several campaign-style stops in Michigan, apparently to help lay the groundwork for future support. Republican leaders in one key Michigan county abruptly withdrew Huntsman’s invitation, however, when local officials learned that the Utah governor had the nerve to support civil unions for gay couples.

“The voters want and expect us to stand on principle and return to our roots,” the local chairwoman of the GOP said. “Unfortunately, by holding an event with Gov. Huntsman, we would be doing the exact opposite.”

It was a ridiculous move, of course, but it also sent a signal to Huntsman about the level of maturity in his party — or in this case, the lack thereof. It’s certainly possible the response from this county and other GOP activists made clear to Huntsman that it’s not worth even trying to take the lead in the party, at least not in the near future.

So, for now he’s teaming up with Obama, perhaps wondering if Republicans will have grown up by 2016.

Steve Benen

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevebenen. Steve Benen is a producer at MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show. He was the principal contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal blog from August 2008 until January 2012.