US President Barack Obama and Utah Governor Jon Huntsman (Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama and Utah Governor Jon Huntsman (Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

BY JOHN FUND – Early in 2009, the Obama White House thought it had brilliantly sidelined two potential political rivals by giving them diplomatic posts: Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State and Utah Governor Jon Huntsman, an up-and-coming Republican, was made ambassador to China.

Mrs. Clinton still shows no sign of leaving her job before the 2012 election because of political ambitions. But the same can’t be said of Mr. Huntsman. Politico.com reports that key Obama aides now fully expect him to exit his post in the spring and explore a 2012 presidential candidacy.

One of the attendees at the off-the-record Alfalfa Dinner on Saturday night in Washington told me that White House Chief of Staff William Daley took up the issue directly in his speech in the form of a joke.

“It’s also good to see Jon Huntsman, our ambassador to China,” Mr. Daley told the crowd of Washington notables. “Or as we call him around the White House: the Manchurian Candidate. I want Jon to know that the president has no hard feelings. In fact, he just did an interview with the Tea Party Express saying how integral he has been to the success of the Obama administration.”

The 50-year-old Mr. Huntsman would start off as a true underdog in any race for the GOP nomination, but as a centrist he could have a chance to make an impression early in the New Hampshire primary, which is open to independent voters.

Since the Democratic contest for president is likely to see no serious opponent to Mr. Obama, independents would be free to vote in the GOP primary. That’s exactly how John McCain won the 2000 contest there with George W. Bush — losing registered Republicans but cleaning up with independents. Should he run, Mr. Huntsman would try to further emulate Mr. McCain’s strategy of winning the nomination in 2008 by becoming the only centrist in a field of candidates dominated by the right.

John Fund

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