Columbia, South Carolina (CNN) - If ambassador to China Jon Huntsman does decide to run for president after returning to the United States in early May, his advisers are planning to make a serious play for South Carolina, the early primary state that traditionally propels Republican candidates to the presidential nomination.
The conservative-leaning state might seem like a curious place to make a stand for a Mormon ex-Obama administration official who supports same-sex civil unions, but his team is confident that South Carolina Republicans are hungry for a fresh face in a lackluster 2012 field.
“If he gets in the race, from everything I’ve heard, his plan would be to plant a flag in South Carolina,” said longtime Columbia-based strategist Richard Quinn, who helped John McCain win the state’s primary in 2008. “I really think we can win here.”
Quinn is working for Horizon PAC, Huntsman’s campaign-in-waiting, and will steer his presidential bid in South Carolina should the ambassador officially enter the race after his China post concludes on April 30.
He said New Hampshire and South Carolina – two of the four early states that allow independents to participate in their presidential primaries – “are ready for the arrival of a major new player.”
“I think moving from New Hampshire to South Carolina, that’s the traditional path,” Quinn said, mapping out Huntsman’s potential path to the nomination. “No disrespect to Iowa, but New Hampshire and South Carolina are two parts of a three part rocket, along with Florida.”
Huntsman, also a former Utah governor, will return to the United States just before the South Carolina Republican Party sponsors the first Republican presidential debate in Greenville on May 5, but his advisers are doubtful that he will participate.
He will, however, have an opportunity to introduce himself to the state when he delivers a May 7 commencement speech at the University of South Carolina.
Already, Huntsman is securing endorsements in the Palmetto State.
State. Sen. John Courson, who has correctly picked the winner of the South Carolina Republican primary in every contest since he supported Ronald Reagan in 1980, announced Monday that he plans to back Huntsman.
"Republicans are looking for an exciting new conservative leader like Ronald Reagan, someone who can inspire them and unite the various factions within our party,” Courson told CNN in a statement. “They also want a nominee who is electable and can go on to win the November election.”
Courson said he sees “a real potential for Jon Huntsman to be the Reagan Republican who can inspire a new generation of conservatives."
Huntsman’s political action committee has also hired South Carolina-based operative Chris Allen, a former aide to ex- Gov. Mark Sanford and John McCain’s presidential campaign. Allen will work in Huntsman’s national office but will have a hand in managing South Carolina field efforts.
Advisers to other potential Republican campaigns in South Carolina are all but dismissing Huntsman’s chances in the state, pointing to his work for the Obama administration and his dismal finishes in spate of presidential straw polls held at GOP county conventions across the state this month.
Quinn previewed how Huntsman might respond to critics of his record.
On joining the Obama administration: “Serving two years as ambassador to China is going to be a huge plus,” Quinn said. “The fact that he was an ambassador under Obama, he was also ambassador to Singapore under George H. W. Bush. He will respond that it was his patriotic duty, and that partisan politics stop at the water's edge.”
On his Mormon faith, which was problematic in South Carolina for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney during his 2008 bid: “Most of the people who voted for Nikki Haley in the governor’s race knew that she had an unconventional religious background, that she had been a Sikh before she converted to Christianity,” Quinn said. “South Carolina is beyond the religious litmus test issue.”
On supporting civil unions while Utah governor: “There is no way you can doubt the guy’s conservative credentials,” Quinn said. "He is pro-life, not flip-flopping back and forth. As for civil unions, it’s the same position as George W. Bush had during his eight years in office.”
Huntsman’s biggest asset, Quinn argued, may be that Republican voters are frustrated with the current field of candidates and want a new face who can potentially beat Obama next November.
“No one is picking up momentum,” Quinn said. “No one is getting any traction. There is this general feeling that maybe the candidate we need hasn’t come yet. What I hear is, ‘I like this one, I like that one, but can they beat Obama?'”
Quinn said that unlike Romney, who has already made an impression on Republican voters in the state, Huntsman would enter the race as a largely unknown quantity who can run a race on his own terms.
“The rap on him I’m getting from average voters is, ‘Huntsman who?,’” Quinn said. “They don’t know him. He is a blank slate in the minds of these primary voters. If he runs, they will see a very attractive guy who has personal resources that can help fund his campaign.”