Huntsman tapped: Obama's selection of China envoy sets off a political furor

Published: Sunday, May 17 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama speaks in the Diplomatic Reception Room as Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., Huntsman's wife, Mary Kaye, and their family look on at the White House Saturday. Obama nominated Huntsman as the next U.S. ambassador to China.

Mandel Ngan,Afp/Getty Images

The selection of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. to be the U.S. ambassador to China is shaking up politics in Utah — and maybe even nationally.

Democratic President Barack Obama announced Saturday that Utah's GOP governor is his choice for what he described as a post "as important as any in the world."

China, the president said, "will have a crucial role in confronting all the major challenges that face Asia and the world in the years ahead," including the economic crisis, climate change, public health and terrorism.

Huntsman brings "a lifetime of knowledge and experience that will help advance this important partnership," Obama said. The president noted even though the governor had played a key role in the campaign of his rival for the White House, Arizona Sen. John McCain, he knows "Jon is the kind of leader who always put country ahead of party."

Standing beside the president at the White House press conference, Huntsman used a Chinese saying to explain his approach to the new job. In Mandarin, he said, "Together we work, together we progress."

Huntsman said he never expected "to be called into action by the person who beat us," but when the president "asks you to step up and serve in a capacity like this, that, to me, is the end of the conversation and the beginning of the obligation to rise to the challenge."

His decision to accept Obama's offer means that Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert will become governor and a special election will be held in 2010 for the final two years of the term. It's not likely that Huntsman will step down as governor until the U.S. Senate confirms his nomination, which could take weeks.

Still, Utah GOP Chairman Stan Lockhart said there's already a seismic shift in state politics. "We've seen a huge change take place in the last 24 hours that no one expected," he said.

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland, who was in the Washington area attending party meetings, said Huntsman's exit is sparking new interest from the national party in funding Utah candidates.

"Our world just got very interesting," Holland said.

The prospect of a new governor less than a year into Huntsman's second term has would-be successors scrambling to decide whether to run sooner than planned. The governor had already made it clear he would not seek a third term, so a number of potential candidates have been quietly gearing up for the 2012 race.

The list of names has always included Herbert. And Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, is already putting together a campaign organization. He said he told his advisers Saturday he wants to see how Herbert does as governor before deciding whether to get in the 2010 race.

"Obviously, if Gary does a great job it affects whether I run," Valentine said.

Other potential candidates being mentioned include Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce President Lane Beattie; Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics; Scott Anderson, head of Zions Bank; and Utah's only Democratic member of Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson.

"I wouldn't call it quite the Wild West, but it's pretty wide open," said House Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara. "It's going to be a very fun political season."

And not just in Utah. Huntsman has been widely touted as a potential presidential candidate in 2012 and had been traveling to key GOP primary states to pitch a more moderate platform for the party, including support for civil unions and addressing climate change. Although he had no formal campaign structure in place, he was getting help from McCain's former chief campaign strategist, John Weaver.

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