SALT LAKE CITY — Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., said to be considering a presidential run in 2012, plans to step down as U.S. ambassador to China "the first part of this year," the White House announced Monday.
The statement by press secretary Robert Gibbs that a replacement is already being sought for Huntsman came as news outlets including Bloomberg Businessweek reported he would leave in May.
Huntsman's resignation is effective April 30, according to an administration official. His spokesman in Beijing had no comment on his plans.
Gibbs said at a press briefing that he was aware of the speculation and had talked to "several people in the building, and I have not heard anybody say they know what the future holds for Ambassador Huntsman."
His departure is increasing interest in a Huntsman presidential bid, once seen as an improbable long shot in national political circles. A lengthy post by Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza, for example, makes the case for a Huntsman candidacy in 2012.
While it had been suggested he was eyeing a 2016 bid, it appears Huntsman may see an opening in the GOP field for a moderate in the upcoming election. He drew national attention for taking what were seen as liberal stands on some issues including climate change and civil unions as governor.
"There are warring factions within the Republican Party," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "If Huntsman runs, he will be choosing sides in that internal Republican war instead of waging one from the outside."
Jowers said evidence of the potential opening for Huntsman is the recent response by both the GOP and tea party Republicans to the Democratic president's State of the Union speech.
A Huntsman run would likely mean two Mormon candidates with Utah ties. Former Utah Olympic leader Mitt Romney ran unsuccessfully in 2008 for the GOP nomination and is expected to announce this spring he's running again.
"For Utahns and members of the LDS Church, it's an embarrassment of riches," Jowers said. "How that plays out will be really interesting. But it's kind of nice not to be marginalized."
Matthew Wilson, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who specializes in religion and politics, isn't so sure there's a place for Huntsman in the presidential race.
"If you're looking for a moderately conservative, business friendly, Mormon candidate, well, there's one in there already and Romney has a lot more name recognition," Wilson said. "The challenge for Huntsman is to sort of elbow Romney aside."
It's not going to be easy for Huntsman to sell voters on his record as "a fairly moderate governor of a very, very conservative state," said Nathan Oman a law professor at The College of William & Mary in Virginia.
Oman, a native of Salt Lake City, said many Americans "see Utah as this weird Mormon state" and won't pay attention to Huntsman's accomplishments here. Plus, he said, conservative voters will be suspicious of Huntsman's work in a Democratic administration.
Even before Huntsman's resignation was confirmed, there had been talk in Washington about his political aspirations, fueled by a recent Newsweek article that labeled him "The Manchurian Candidate." White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley jokingly referred to Huntsman by that title at a dinner Saturday night.
And even Obama, who surprised many by choosing a Republican for such an important role in his administration in 2009, has publicly acknowledged the potential competition.
At a recent press conference during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington earlier this month, Obama responded to a question about a Huntsman run by saying, "I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary."
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