Why Jon Huntsman is the Republican candidate I hold in highest regard was summed up in the terse exchange between him and front-runner Mitt Romney at Sunday’s New Hampshire debate. Moderator David Gregory asked Huntsman what cuts in federal spending he would tell the American people would be necessary in this age of austerity. The former ambassador to China used it as an opportunity to smack back at an insult over his service in the Obama administration that was landed by the former governor of Massachusetts at the previous night’s rather dreary gathering.

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JON HUNTSMAN: Let me say — let me say, first of all, with respect to Governor Romney, you know, there are a lot of people who are tuning in this morning. And I’m sure they’re terribly confused after watching all of this political spin up here. I was criticized last night by Governor Romney for putting my country first.

And I just wanna remind the people here in New Hampshire and throughout the United States that I think — he criticized me while he was out raising money for serving my country in China. Yes, under a Democrat. Like my two sons are doing in the United States Navy. They’re not asking who — what political affiliation the president is. I wanna be very clear with the people here in New Hampshire and this country. I will always put my country first. And I think that’s important to them.

DAVID GREGORY:All right. Well, why don’t you get a response, Governor Romney, and I’ll come back to you on the austerity question.
MITT ROMNEY:I — 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. I think the decision to go and work for President Obama is one which you took. I don’t — don’t disrespect your decision to do that. I just think it’s — most likely that the person who should represent our party running against President Obama is not someone who called him a remarkable leader and went to be his ambassador in China.
JON HUNTSMAN:This nation is divided, David, because of attitudes like that. The American people are tired of the partisan division. They have had enough. There is no trust left among the American people in the institutions of power and among the American people and our elected officials.

That last line earned Huntsman a hearty round of applause from the audience inside the hall in Concord, N.H. And an amen from me.

The Republican field of presidential candidates is now populated by men who want to take the country back. Rick Santorum wants to take us back to at least the 1950s with his social conservatism. Mitt Romney wants to take us back only to March 2010 when his book “No Apology: The Case for American Greatness” was published. That’s the book he points to when he wants to show off his conservative bona fides. This usually happens when folks on the right bring up problematic (read, reasonable) comments and policy positions from his past. And Huntsman wants to take us back to a time when an invitation by the president of the United States to serve one’s country was an honor that one accepted. It wasn’t a matter of party. It was a matter of country. This is one back to the future we could use more of.

Huntsman has been consistent on this point. During his presidential exploratory roll-out last May, he told ABC News’s George Stephanopoulos, “I’d do it again.”

Jon Huntsman: I worked for the President of the United States. The President asked me, the President of all the people. And during a time of war, during a time of economic difficulty for our country, if I’m asked by my President to serve, I’ll stand up and do it.
George Stephanopoulos: So you’d do it again?
Jon Huntsman: I’d do it again. Of course. I’ve always been . . . trained, and I hope to train my own family that when your country needs you, particularly in a critical and sensitive bipartisan position, which is the U.S. ambassador to China, that you — if there is the prospect that you can get in there and bring about change in a way that helps your country through public service, I’m there.

Huntsman was one of three presidential candidates to address a forum I moderated at St. Anselm’s College last October. Mrs. Huntsman was there, too. We had a nice chat just as I was leaving and her husband was settled in on a sofa talking to a New Hampshire voter. I told Mrs. Huntsman that her husband won my enduring respect for his unflinching response to Stephanopoulos about criticism of his service as an Obama ambassador.

Huntsman needs more than my respect. He needs my vote if he’s going to edge his way into a second-place finish tomorrow night. Unfortunately for him, I don’t live in New Hampshire — and I’m not a Republican.