There are quite a few elements to Jon Huntsman’s background and ideology that contribute to his struggling campaign, but his service in the Obama administration is probably near the top of the list. Republicans voters are desperate to replace President Obama, and one of the GOP candidates worked for the president as recently as eight months ago.

In Saturday night’s debate, Mitt Romney, who probably sees the former Utah governor as a mild threat in New Hampshire, pressed the point, telling Huntsman, “[Y]ou were, the last two years, implementing the policies of this administration in China. The rest of us on this stage were doing our best to get Republicans elected across the country and stop the policies of this president from being put forward.”

It took 12 hours, but Huntsman thought of a good response, explaining in Sunday morning’s debate that he, like his two sons currently serving in the Navy, has been willing to serve under a Democratic president. “I want to be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country — I will always put my country first,” Huntsman said.

Brian Powell flagged Romney’s fascinating retort.

“I think we serve our country first by standing for people who believe in conservative principles, and doing everything in our power to promote an agenda that does not include President Obama’s agenda.”

Think about that for a moment. As far as Romney is concerned, putting country first means putting country second — or perhaps third, behind ideology and party.

Or as Powell put it, “Essentially, he’s saying Americans serve the country best by serving the Republican Party first.”

For what it’s worth, Huntsman has decided to effectively make this his closing statement, trying to turn his Obama administration service into a positive. He spent yesterday afternoon pushing the “country first” message, and last night, argued, “Mr. Romney apparently believes in putting politics first.”

The problem for Huntsman may be that he’s out of step, again, with his party — the Republican base very likely agrees with Romney, and believes “putting country first” means pushing a far-right agenda and refusing to compromise with Democrats.

But I also suspect outside the GOP base, Romney’s insistence of putting party and ideology above all is rather offensive.

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.