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.
The ambassadorship announcement surprised Washington insiders, who have been buzzing for months now about a possible White House run by Huntsman. There's virtually no chance Huntsman would challenge an Obama re-election bid after agreeing to serve in his administration. At 49, however, he is still viewed as a possibility for 2016.
"Bombshell," declared Politico.com, calling Obama's choice of a Republican like former President George W. Bush adding Democratic presidential contenders John Edwards or John Kerry to his administration at the start of his first term.
"Stunner," said MSNBC's Web site, pointing out that Obama campaign chief David Plouffe recently suggested Utah's governor was the only potential Republican challenger who makes him nervous because Huntsman is "speaking a lot of truth about the direction of the party."
That's led to speculation that Obama picked Huntsman to get him out of the 2012 race. But the new administration first expressed interest in Huntsman shortly after last November's election. And in January, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, apparently met with Huntsman in Salt Lake. And Politico.com reported Obama himself asked Huntsman to take the job a week ago, during a meeting held while the governor was in Washington for the White House Correspondents' dinner.
Politico.com said the move was labeled "brilliant" by GOP strategist Mark McKinnon. "Keep your friends close and your enemies in China."
The U.'s Jowers said Plouffe's comment was nothing more than "a nice way to compliment a future colleague." As for Huntsman's political ambitions, Jowers said the governor "is passionate about helping the Republican Party. But he is even more passionate about Asia."
Huntsman served as U.S. ambassador to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush and as a deputy U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush, where he negotiated agreements with China. In 2001, he was on a short list for the China ambassadorship.
He and his wife, Mary Kaye, adopted their daughter Gracie Mei from China. As governor, he led a Utah trade mission to Beijing and Shanghai, talking up the state in near-perfect Mandarin. He learned the language as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Taiwan.
It's that skill, along with his diplomatic background, that made him a perfect pick for Obama, said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
"Huntsman is very well-qualified," Wilson said, noting few Americans have both the language abilities and the political skills needed for what is arguably the most important ambassadorship.
But the professor said Huntsman's taking the post will have little real impact on the 2012 race. "I'll be honest with you, I never saw Huntsman as a leading contender," Wilson said.
Utah Republican leaders had no complaint about the GOP governor joining a Democratic administration. "There are some things that transcend politics," Lockhart said.
Valentine said not everyone in the party will be as accepting. "Some in the party will probably say he's a traitor," Valentine said. "But I won't."
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele didn't address the issue of a GOP governor joining a Democratic administration in a statement issued Saturday.
"Governor Huntsman has been a good governor for Utah. He is a respected figure in the Republican Party and I wish him well in his new role as ambassador to China. I have all confidence that Governor Huntsman will be a strong voice on U.S. interests.
The U.S. and China have many overlapping interests and I hope Governor Huntsman's appointment means that President Obama is serious about evolving our relationship with China in a positive direction."
Utah Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said he understood why Huntsman was offered the job. What's not clear is why the governor took it.
"Am I surprised he's taking it? I kind of am. I would think being governor of Utah is a great job," Waddoups said. "He knows more about an ambassadorship than I do. But to me, staying home and being governor of a growing, vibrant state — I just think that sounds very attractive."