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Washington • U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman Jr. has resigned his diplomatic post, effective at the end of April, and is weighing a potential presidential bid.
Huntsman, Utah's former governor, told President Barack Obama two months ago that he planned to leave Beijing in late April or early May and on Monday delivered a resignation letter asking to leave his posting by May.
Beyond that move, Huntsman has not decided whether to run for president, though it remains an option, according to people familiar with his situation.
Despite media reports quoting unnamed White House officials who said they expected Huntsman to challenge Obama, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs stressed Monday that no one in the West Wing knows what "the future holds for Ambassador Huntsman."
Though it's not an official campaign, people close to the former Utah governor have begun preliminary planning and are holding bi-weekly calls to discuss a potential bid. Those advisers have also established a political action committee in Utah which has no contribution limits or corporate contribution ban called the New Horizons PAC, which could fund any unofficial exploration of a White House campaign.
While other potential 2012 candidates have been on the stump for some time now, Huntsman would be essentially starting from scratch in a crowded field. Then again, that can be a positive, say political observers.
"Right now, most people look at this as a fairly wide-open field," says Saul Anuzis, the former Michigan GOP chairman. "There's no heir apparent or leader out there. So he probably has as good of a chance as anybody."
Then again, should Huntsman dive into a White House campaign, the California-born and Utah-reared former governor faces some hurdles, chief among them his moderate stance on some key issues.
As governor, Huntsman endorsed a constitutional amendment against gay marriage but later came out in support of civil unions. Huntsman also raised concerns about climate change and backed efforts for a regional carbon exchange. As many governors did, Huntsman backed the federal stimulus act as well.
Beyond that, Huntsman has spent nearly two years in the Obama administration, albeit in a post halfway around the world.
Huntsman, who dropped out of high school to join a rock band but later graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a business degree, may be able to turn those concerns into positives, say some political handicappers.
"I don't think the liabilities that people are pointing to thus far are big liabilities," says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "The fact that he worked for the Obama administration could clearly be turned into an advantage. It could be very attractive to independent voters."
In a briefing Monday, Gibbs said that Obama tapped Huntsman for the diplomatic role in 2009 "because we believed and continue to believe he brings broad range of experience to an extremely important ambassadorial post with one of our most important relationships in the world."
"The president continues to believe that," Gibbs said, noting that Americans trust a person in that position would be focused on his role and "Ambassador Huntsman believes that as well."
With former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also a potential White House contender, Huntsman's entrance would add a second Mormon to the field. Romney embraced his faith in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in his 2008 campaign, though he made efforts to stress church leaders in Salt Lake City wouldn't control him if he won.
Huntsman, on the other hand, told Fortune magazine last year that he wasn't "overly religious," and added that his children have attended Catholic schools, and that one of his adopted daughters was born into a Buddhist culture and another into the Hindu faith.
"I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies," Huntsman told the magazine.
That said, both Huntsman and Romney are often referred to by their Mormon membership, a point that fellow Mormon and head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, Kirk Jowers, says may not be as big a concern this time around.
"I don't think having two Mormons at the top of all nomination chatter is a bad thing," Jowers said. "If anything, it moves Mormonism more into the central mainstream of the party to see two of perhaps the top five or six candidates from the same religion."
When he leaves Beijing, Huntsman will be returning to the nation's capitol, where he purchased a $3.6-million home located in a tony section of the city and near many foreign embassies. The ambassador has not had a home in Utah since he moved into the governor's mansion in 2005.
That said, if Huntsman joins the presidential nomination fight, he's more likely to be traveling the country and visiting early caucus and primary states like New Hampshire.
Fergus Cullen, the Granite State's most recent GOP chairman, says Huntsman was in his state four years ago pitching McCain's candidacy but hasn't been seen since.
"It's safe to say that his name recognition in New Hampshire is zero percent but that's no different than most candidates when they start out," Cullen said.
On the plus side, Cullen says that Huntsman's work for the Obama administration can be explained away to Republican loyalists as being in the service of his country.
"He was doing national service," says Cullen, who is neutral in the presidential race so far. "It's like serving in the military in a Democratic administration. It doesn't do him any dishonor" to be linked to the Obama White House this way.
Then again, it may not be something Huntsman would put on a campaign sign.
As Obama joked recently, "I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary."
A Jon Huntsman Jr. presidential bid?
While some potential candidates can cite real-world experience in running a state or working on national issues, Huntsman not only governed a state considered one of the best-managed in the union, he also dealt with foreign leaders in some of the most dicey diplomatic situations.
Huntsman worked as an executive in the Huntsman Corp., as well as ran the Huntsman Cancer Institute two ideal things on a GOP presidential candidate's resume.
Other potential 2012 GOP contenders have faced tough questions in recent years as a motivated base of voters demanded more conservative views, leaving those candidates with a paper trail that may be harder to explain to moderates. Huntsman, meanwhile, has avoided being asked those questions or forced to stake out positions on domestic issues.
While many of the rumored candidates for the GOP nomination have been around and talked about for some time, Huntsman is a fresh face, able to introduce himself now to the American public and not be dragged down by past bids.
While Huntsman endorsed the effort in Utah to pass a constitutional amendment to bar gay marriage, he also came out in support of civil unions, a point that may not go over well with social conservative voters in the GOP primaries.
Many of the other potential 2012 candidates have made rounds on television networks, visited early states and worked their way into being somewhat known to the American electorate. Huntsman's name recognition is still almost non-existent.
Like Mitt Romney in the 2008 campaign, Huntsman comes from a Mormon background and could run into voters who consider the faith a cult or non-Christian.
Huntsman's father, Jon Huntsman Sr., is a billionaire and among the world's richest people, a position that may not play as well with GOP voters who want to see self-made candidates.
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