(CNN) – Jon Huntsman has hired the South Carolina Republican Party's top staffer to run his day-to-day campaign in the early primary state, CNN has learned, a sign that the former Utah governor intends to compete seriously in the state's pivotal Republican primary should he decide to run for president.
Fresh off a five-day swing through New Hampshire, Huntsman has tapped Joel Sawyer for the job of South Carolina State Director, another signal that Huntsman is on the cusp of joining the GOP field.
Sawyer resigned from his post as the South Carolina GOP's Executive Director on Monday and announced the move in an email to members of the party's executive committee, a copy of which was obtained by CNN.
In the email, Sawyer said he had a chance to meet several potential Republican candidates during his time at the party but praised Huntsman as "a lifelong conservative" and said the former Utah governor "represents the best chance for Republicans next November."
Sawyer, who led state party operations during sweeping Republican gains in 2010, had been serving in a transitional role at the party as the new GOP chairman, Chad Connelly, takes over from outgoing chair Karen Floyd.
Prior to working at the South Carolina GOP, Sawyer was a longtime speechwriter and communications director for former Gov. Mark Sanford.
The addition of Sawyer gives Huntsman, who stepped down as President Obama's ambassador to China last month, a top tier team of advisers in the key early primary state. One of Huntsman's senior hands is longtime South Carolina political strategist Richard Quinn, who is serving as his consultant in the state.
Both former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty have also hired campaign aides in South Carolina in recent weeks, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has a team of experienced operatives working there on his behalf.
Huntsman's aides see his path to the Republican nomination running through New Hampshire and South Carolina, two states where independents are able to vote in GOP primaries, followed by a strong showing in the Florida primary (depending, of course, on where Florida falls on the still-in-flux primary calendar).
The decision to compete in socially conservative South Carolina might seem unusual for Huntsman given his support for same-sex civil unions and questions about his Mormon faith, but the Huntsman team is confident that a fractured and wide-open GOP field could leave the door open for a fresh-faced candidate with foreign policy experience.
And as Arizona Sen. John McCain demonstrated in the 2008 primary, impeccable conservative credentials are hardly required to win the state's primary.
McCain, never darling of the right, won the South Carolina primary with a 33 percent plurality after Mike Huckabee, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney divvied up the rest of the vote.