SALT LAKE CITY ­ — Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., said to be considering a presidential run in 2012, plans to step down as U.S. ambassador to China "the first part of this year," the White House announced Monday.

The statement by press secretary Robert Gibbs that a replacement is already being sought for Huntsman came as news outlets including Bloomberg Businessweek reported he would leave in May.

Huntsman's resignation is effective April 30, according to an administration official. His spokesman in Beijing had no comment on his plans.

Gibbs said at a press briefing that he was aware of the speculation and had talked to "several people in the building, and I have not heard anybody say they know what the future holds for Ambassador Huntsman."

His departure is increasing interest in a Huntsman presidential bid, once seen as an improbable long shot in national political circles. A lengthy post by Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza, for example, makes the case for a Huntsman candidacy in 2012. 

While it had been suggested he was eyeing a 2016 bid, it appears Huntsman may see an opening in the GOP field for a moderate in the upcoming election. He drew national attention for taking what were seen as liberal stands on some issues including climate change and civil unions as governor.

"There are warring factions within the Republican Party," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics. "If Huntsman runs, he will be choosing sides in that internal Republican war instead of waging one from the outside."

Jowers said evidence of the potential opening for Huntsman is the recent response by both the GOP and tea party Republicans to the Democratic president's State of the Union speech.

A Huntsman run would likely mean two Mormon candidates with Utah ties. Former Utah Olympic leader Mitt Romney ran unsuccessfully in 2008 for the GOP nomination and is expected to announce this spring he's running again.

"For Utahns and members of the LDS Church, it's an embarrassment of riches," Jowers said. "How that plays out will be really interesting. But it's kind of nice not to be marginalized."

Matthew Wilson, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who specializes in religion and politics, isn't so sure there's a place for Huntsman in the presidential race.

"If you're looking for a moderately conservative, business friendly, Mormon candidate, well, there's one in there already and Romney has a lot more name recognition," Wilson said. "The challenge for Huntsman is to sort of elbow Romney aside."

It's not going to be easy for Huntsman to sell voters on his record as "a fairly moderate governor of a very, very conservative state," said Nathan Oman a law professor at The College of William & Mary in Virginia.

Oman, a native of Salt Lake City, said many Americans "see Utah as this weird Mormon state" and won't pay attention to Huntsman's accomplishments here. Plus, he said, conservative voters will be suspicious of Huntsman's work in a Democratic administration.

Even before Huntsman's resignation was confirmed, there had been talk in Washington about his political aspirations, fueled by a recent Newsweek article that labeled him "The Manchurian Candidate." White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley jokingly referred to Huntsman by that title at a dinner Saturday night.

And even Obama, who surprised many by choosing a Republican for such an important role in his administration in 2009, has publicly acknowledged the potential competition.

At a recent press conference during Chinese President Hu Jintao's visit to Washington earlier this month, Obama responded to a question about a Huntsman run by saying, "I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary."

Some of Huntsman's supporters, including Utah Jazz CEO Greg Miller, put together a political action committee last August ostensibly to support like-minded candidates. The R-PAC, since renamed the New Horizon PAC, amounted to an effort to draft Huntsman to run for president.

Among Huntsman's key backers is John Weaver, a top strategist for the 2008 GOP presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain. Huntsman endorsed McCain and played a role in his race, bucking the many Utah Republicans who wanted Romney to win.

Romney's supporters in Utah include Jowers and GOP Gov. Gary Herbert, who had been Huntsman's lieutenant governor. Herbert's office announced Monday that he is leading a trade mission to China, April 11-15.

Herbert's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, said "the governor has always supported Mitt Romney in the past. We have heard nothing official about Jon Huntsman's candidacy and it's too early to speculate."

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, issued a statement commending Huntsman for his service as ambassador. “I am confident he will continue to bring solid leadership, expertise and total dedication to the job until he leaves the position, and I wish him the very best in his future endeavors,” Hatch said.

Utah lawmakers, who sometimes found themselves at odds with Huntsman over his less-conservative positions, weren't particularly enthusiastic about the prospects of their former chief executive running for president.

“Whoopee,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said.

Last year, Huntsman purchased a $3.6 million home in Washington, D.C. Politico has reported he met recently in Washington with McCain about a potential run.

One of Huntsman's close friends in Utah, Bud Scruggs, president of Huntsman Financial Corp., said they talked in December about his future.

"When I was talking to him in December, he was talking about midsummer," Scruggs told the Deseret News.

He said his conversation with Huntsman did not focus at that time on a GOP presidential bid.

"He talked about making decisions generally. It wasn't like he said, 'I'm going to make a decision about running for president.'''

Scruggs, who served past Republican governors in key roles, said he has not been asked to help in any presidential run but would be happy to do so.

"I'm just a huge fan, and he's a very good friend," Scruggs said. "What he made clear to me is he was going to focus on being a good ambassador and I think that's what he's been doing."