Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. was named Saturday by President Barack Obama to be U.S. ambassador to China.
"I wasn't looking for a new job in life, but a call from the president changed that," Huntsman said, standing beside Obama at a White House press conference.
Obama described the importance of the post and asked Utahns to forgive him for taking away a popular governor.
"There are few countries in the world with a past so rich or a future so full of possiblities as China, with a vast population, growing economy and far-reaching influence, China will have a crucial role in confronting all the major challenges that face Asia and the world in the years ahead," the president said.
During the early morning announcement, the Democratic president noted the GOP governor had played a key role in the campaign of his rival for the Whtie House, Arizona Sen. John McCain. "I know Jon is the kind of leader who always put country ahead of party," the president said, noting he understood Huntsman's decision to join a Democratic administration would not be easy to explain to some in the GOP.
The appointment of Huntsman means Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert will take over as the state's chief executive. A special election for the governor's office will be held in 2010, under a new state constitutional amendment, for what will be the final two years of Huntsman's term. Both Huntsman's spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley, and Herbert's chief of staff, Joe Demma, declined Saturday to answer questions about the transition, saying a press conference will be held at the Utah Capitol on Monday to announce the details.
Huntsman, a Republican, met late last year with representatives of the Democratic president's administration about a possible appointment. Politico.com reported late Friday that Obama planned to name Huntsman as ambassador to China, calling the governor "a rapidly rising star in the Republican Party" who "quickly emerged after November as one of the leading moderate GOP voices."
The governor, 49, has served as U.S. ambassador to Singapore, and was on a short list to fill the same role in China under President George W. Bush. He was also a U.S. trade ambassador to the region and has negotiated agreements with the Chinese government.
Huntsman speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese learned for an LDS Church mission to Taiwan. He and his wife, Mary Kaye, adopted a daughter from China.
As governor, he led a Utah trade mission to China during his first term. A Western Governors' Association trip to China this month that Huntsman would have led as the group's chairman was canceled, reportedly because of the swine flu outbreak.
Huntsman, who was re-elected last November, has said he would not seek a third term as governor and has been widely touted as a possible candidate for president in 2012. He already has made several trips to key GOP primary states.
Accepting the appointment likely means he'll put his presidential ambitions on hold until 2016, political pollster Dan Jones said.
"I really think he's wanted to be secretary of state or ambassador to China. He really feels like he can make a major difference," Jones said. "Maybe come 2012, people will feel the same way. Or 2016. If he's ambassador, he's not going to take on a sitting president."
The governor arrived in Washington, D.C. late Thursday, after spending a week in Israel on a Utah trade mission to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Roskelley said he had no meetings there other than the Saturday announcement.
Huntsman won't be the first Utah governor to leave office mid-term to accept a presidential appointment. Former Gov. Mike Leavitt left during his third term to become administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Bush in 2003.
But Huntsman had been a key supporter of Obama's GOP opponent in the 2008 presidential race, Arizona Sen. John McCain. He was rumored to have been considered as McCain's choice for vice president. Tim Bridgewater, McCain's Utah-based Western states coordinator, said Huntsman's knowledge of China was well-respected by both Bush and McCain. "Barack Obama would be well-served by someone who understands the importance of a strong free-market relationship between the U.S. and China," said Bridgewater, a recently announced candidate for U.S. Senate.
Past U.S. ambassadors to China include former President George H.W. Bush, who held the post in the mid-1970s.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued a statement Saturday about Huntsman's appointment. "We warmly congratulate the Governor and wish him well in his new assignment," said church spokesman Scott Trotter.