If the sole goal of Republicans for 2012 is to make Barack Obama a one-term president, they already know how to do it: nominate Jon Huntsman.
I was talking with a friend of mine over Thanksgiving break who is normally pretty non-political and somehow the topic of the primary came up. He was bemoaning the lack of "a non-crazy fiscal conservative". He'd watched one or two of the debates, and Huntsman was the only candidate saying anything that made any sense at all; why, my friend wanted to know, was the media not paying him any attention? Well, because his polling is terrible and the media focuses on the winners, I explained. But wouldn't most people like him if they heard what he had to say? Why was his polling so bad? "Because Tea Party," was my eloquent response.
But to be serious: short of a sudden and miraculous economic recovery, a major foreign policy crisis on par with 9/11, or a significant third-party bid from the right, I don't see how Obama could possibly beat Huntsman in the general election. Obama's policies are quite unpopular and Huntsman's policies are centrist enough to be largely inoffensive to the general electorate. Huntsman could easily sweep independent voters like my friend from the last paragraph and even pick up some disgruntled Blue Dogs along the way. If voters are looking for someone who will fix our economy without dragging our country to an ideological extreme, Huntsman can make a serious argument that he is that someone. And he is almost uniquely well-qualified to be president in that he has a great deal of experience with both domestic and foreign policy, boasting successful tenures as Governor of Utah and Ambassador to China.
In addition to these strengths, he doesn't have a glaring weakness in the way that the rest of the Republican field does. Romney can't seem to shake his characterization as a chronic flip-flopper, Perry is bumbling and inarticulate, Gingrich's personal history is an albatross around his neck, Paul is an uncompromising ideologue with limited appeal, and Cain is just a mess.
Huntsman has none of these obvious issues for the general election. That doesn't mean he's perfect by any means, of course. His debate answers are occasionally overly glib (e.g. his propensity for out-of-place '90s references) or overly technical. His actual campaign organizational skills remain mostly untested, because he has not managed to rise much in the polls. And his campaign's messaging has been a bit unfocused. But none of these things are deal-breakers, and all could be fixed relatively easily by skilled advisors and staffers.
Obviously, though, Huntsman has yet to show any real signs that he could win the Republican primary. His moderation, which is one of the things that would make him such a terrifying opponent in a general election, is what makes him a non-starter in today's Republican party and prevents him from rising above 2-3% in polls. If the newly conservative GOP is finding it difficult to stomach Romney, they would find it impossible to deal with Huntsman. Indeed, to the new conservative Republican core, nominating Huntsman would be akin to a Faustian bargain: their soul for the White House.
Huntsman, then, is the nuclear option for Republicans. He presents an option of mutually assured destruction to both the Democratic base and the Republican base. The likelihood of this scenario actually happening is very low; even in New Hampshire, where he is betting the farm on all-or-nothing strategy, his polling is stagnant at about 6%. But if the GOP ever does decide it wants to get deadly serious about beating Obama, Jon Huntsman will be there waiting for them.