WASHINGTON — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is about to add former U.S. ambassador to China to his resume.
Huntsman's time as ambassador officially ends Saturday, and the family has been packing for a move to the Washington, D.C., area, where he'll begin weighing a run for president.
But neither he or nor his wife are giving in hints as to his political future.
In an interview earlier this month at the U.S. ambassador's personal residence in Beijing, Huntsman said he and his family haven’t yet made any decisions.
"For the first time now in over 10 years, we're kind of looking now beyond, as private citizens, looking at where life will then take us," he said.
Added his wife, May Kaye: "We are looking forward to spending more time with our kids. (There have) been a lot of hellos, a lot of goodbyes, a lot of tears, a lot of children bouncing back and forth."
Asked to compare his role as ambassador with chief executive of Utah, Huntsman said, "When you’re the governor, you are out there on point and create a vision for a state and you execute. If you don’t get the job done, you’re held responsible. You can’t run and you can’t hide."
As ambassador, "the job is more of a team sport," he said.
As the "team captain" in China, Huntsman hosted a reception, in two languages, for dignitaries from China and from Utah, there on a trade mission with Gov. Gary Herbert. He also interacted with ordinary Chinese people while jogging with his friend Rich Hartvigsen in Shanghai a few years back.
“We couldn’t go a hundred yards, but he had to stop and have a conversation,” Hartvigsen said. "And these are the common people, the people who are sweeping the streets and selling goods by the side of the road.”
Huntsman will be moving from a home tied to other prominent political figures. The family lives near the spot where Nixon broke the ice with China in 1972 with a famous handshake. A tour upstairs reveals the rooms George and Barbara Bush shared when Bush senior served here, where George W. Bush stayed when he visited.
The Huntsman's youngest son, Will, who played football at Judge Memorial High, stays downstairs. He soon joins his older brother, Jon, at the Naval Academy, where he was recruited to play.
Youngest daughters Asha, adopted from India, and Gracie Mei, adopted from southern China, are well known in China — Gracie so much so the Chinese honored her with a stamp.
“She’s being celebrated on the stamp as one of the 10 most famous citizens of Ghangzhou,” Huntsman said. “I think it’s an extraordinary tale, and I think Gracie is trying to make sense of it all.”
Huntsman declined to entertain specific questions about U.S. politics. Still, he responded to anticipated criticism from others in the GOP to agreeing to work for a Democrat, saying his duty is not unlike service in the military.
“Nobody stops to ask what your president's political persuasion is,” he said. “When you're asked to serve, you serve, and you salute and you do your best for your country. And I think that's been a time-tested value in public service, and if it's good enough for my sons, it's good enough for me."
The Huntsmans seem ready for new challenges.
"It's on one hand exhilarating, because you have a free hand to begin thinking like you've never been able to think before and a little more freedom to do the things you want to do with family," Huntsman said.
Should that include a run for the White House, a group has already formed to support a Huntsman bid, lead by John Weaver, a former key advisor to 2008 GOP presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain. Teams are already in place in key primary states, including New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan and Florida.
Huntsman, who was toying with a presidential run before being chosen as ambassador in 2009, is already set to give commencement speeches at universities in New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Like Huntsman, a slew of potential candidates are also eyeing the political landscape and each other and weighing not just whether to get in, but when.
In a potentially wide field of GOP contenders, his time in China will stand out, according to Lew Cramer, who served both the Reagan and first Bush administrations.
“He’s a diplomat,” Cramer explained. “He knows how to work with people. He has worldview that very few of the other candidates can match.”
Huntsman is also well versed in international relations and trade, former assistant U.S. trade representative Tim Stratford said.
"I think it's been a great experience for him,” Stratford said, “and he's done the job well."
If he jumps in, likely vying for the nomination along with former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, it will put many with links to both in a bind.
Real Salt Lake owner Dave Checketts was once in consideration for the job of 2002 Olympic chief along with both men, a job Romney ultimately won. He said he'll keep his preferences to himself.
"I think it will a great story nationally,” Checketts said. “Both these guys have similar backgrounds. They're both connected to Utah. They're both extraordinary leaders. And either one of them would make a great president, and we'll all make our choices accordingly."5 comments on this story
If he gets in, Huntsman's chances will depend on which other candidates run and what issues emerge as key.
"People use the analogy of a surfer,” explained Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics. “You have to be a great surfer to win, but you also have to catch the right wave. His wave is going to be foreign policy. Romney's is going to be the economy. If one of those is cresting at the right time, who knows what will happen."
Contributing: Viviane Vo-duc, Lisa Riley Roche