Former Utah governor Jon Huntsman once ran to lead the Republican party. Now he’s serving as its chief antagonist.

In a series of speeches and media appearances since dropping from the presidential race in mid-January, Huntsman has repeatedly criticized not just the GOP broadly but also the man he endorsed for president: former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Huntsman allies say he’s just being himself.

“There is no strategy behind his comments,” said Abby Livingston, Huntsman’s oldest daughter. “He has always been open and honest about what he feels is right for the country.”

But Huntsman’s repeated needling of his party — and its standard-bearer — suggest he has a future in mind that may well not include the GOP.

On January 16, Huntsman dropped out of the presidential race and endorsed Romney. A month later, the former ambassador to China called Romney’s China policy “wrongheaded.” He went on to call for “some sort of third party movement or some kind of alternative voice out there that can put forward new ideas.”

Jon Huntsman has not gone quietly. (Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Earlier this month Huntsman declared that the Republican party “is not in a good place right now, given its recent rhetoric on immigration” and not leading in other ways.

“I think boldness is thrown right out the window. I think courage is not on display,” he said. As for Romney himself, “on the trust deficit, I don’t see a whole lot of leadership.”

A few weeks ago, Livingston confirmed that “My dad is not a surrogate for Romney ... he is enjoying private life.”

Then, on Sunday night, in a speech at New York’s 92 Street Y, Huntsman said Ronald Reagan would “likely not” be able to succeed in today’s Republican Party.

Recounting that he had been disinvited from a Republican fundraiser after calling for a third-party, Huntsman compared the GOP to a communist country: “This is what they do in China on party matters if you talk off script.” 

This time, even Huntsman seemed to think he’d gone too far. He told MSNBC this morning that he’d been taken “out of context.” He added that he would “of course” vote for Romney this fall.

It’s hard to see a prominent role for Huntsman in the current Republican party unless the 2012 election ends with a 1964-like result for the GOP, in which a fundamental re-examination is triggered. (Given that Romney is the nominee, it’s hard to see that happening.)

That means that Huntsman’s political future — to the extent he has one — is as some sort of third party candidate (or the leader of a third party movement). Criticizing Republicans fits nicely into that sort of role.