SIMI VALLEY, Calif. -- Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's aides were ecstatic in the spin room after the debate, and they had reason to be: Their man turned in an appealing, level-headed, shrewd and well-informed performance. Whether it will make any difference is doubtful, but as a piece of stagecraft and appeal, Jon Huntsman's presentation of himself was spot on.
He may simply be too reasonable to be nominated -- or even to get much traction.
"He was the best he's ever been and he's getting better all the time," his top aide, Jon Weaver, told HuffPost minutes after the debate ended.
In the first debate that included Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Huntsman unveiled a clever appeal: that he has both the private-sector knowledge of Mitt Romney and the tax-cutting and job-creation track record of Perry.
He noted that Utah was number one nationally in job creation during his tenure and that he repeatedly cut taxes in his state.
He defended the science of climate change and evolution without directly accusing anyone else on the stage -- notably Perry, who has questioned both -- of being on the other, unpalatable side of the argument.
And he repeatedly brought the talk back to big themes: poverty and world affairs and a sense that America had lost its "core."
Huntsman continues to trail badly in the polls. He refuses to take various pledges. He can get establishment voters if Mitt Romney falters. But if Tea Party types take the time to look at his economic track record, they'd like what they'd see. With personal money in the billions and more competitiveness than meets the eye, Huntsman could be in it for the long haul, despite his miniscule standing in the polls.
He's clearly learning how this system works, and he looked more comfortable -- and was a bigger presence -- on this stage than he has been before.
With Perry going for the Tea Party (and Bachmann looking confused and fading fast), and with the others essentially non-factors -- Huntsman has reason to stick around.
Moreso after tonight.