WASHINGTON — U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman is returning to the United States this weekend amid speculation that he could be mounting a Republican campaign for the White House.
Huntsman, a former Utah governor who joined President Barack Obama's administration in 2009, officially completes his work as the nation's top diplomat in China this week. He is expected to attend the annual White House Correspondents' Association dinner on Saturday, a high-profile event that features Obama along with Hollywood and political figures.
Huntsman will be meeting with advisers on Monday to discuss his future, according to a person familiar with his schedule. The person was not authorized to speak publicly about Huntsman's presidential plans.
Federal laws have barred Huntsman from taking any steps toward a campaign until his diplomatic duties are complete. But supporters have created a campaign in waiting should he decide to pursue the presidency. Next month, Huntsman plans to deliver commencement addresses at universities in South Carolina and New Hampshire, two key primary states.
Conservatives play a large role in early primaries and Huntsman could face criticism among the GOP faithful for joining the Obama administration. If he decides to run, Huntsman will need to address two main questions: Why did he decide to work for the Obama administration, and why is he now seeking to unseat his former boss?
"May is going to be the Huntsman month, where he really comes on the scene," said Scott Reed, a Republican strategist who managed Sen. Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. "He needs to square the issue about how he served in the Obama administration. He needs to get it right and he needs to get it right quickly and then he needs to move on why he's running for president."
The former governor stoked speculation about his future when he told Newsweek late last year, "We may have one final run left in our bones." In January, Huntsman announced he would step down this spring as ambassador to China in the Democratic administration.
Huntsman enjoyed high approval ratings in solidly conservative Utah. He opposes abortion and supports gun rights, but his Mormon faith and support of civil unions for gay couples could raise questions among evangelical voters and conservatives. Republicans backing Huntsman say he could attract independents who will be key to a general election campaign against Obama.
Huntsman has won praise from the Obama administration despite speculation he could be seeking to challenge the president. Obama joked that Huntsman's work for the administration would be a "great asset in any Republican primary."