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Possible Jon Huntsman Presidential Bid Brings White House Smiles

Updated at 6:32 pm ET — Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to China, has tendered his resignation to the White House in the form of a hand-delivered letter, reports Politico.com.

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All the political excitement Monday isn't in Cairo, Egypt.

Some of it is in the hearts and minds of U.S. political reporters who apparently are salivating at the prospect of two wealthy former governors who happen to be Mormons battling it out for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Reports are that Jon Huntsman, the U.S. Ambassador to China and former Utah governor, will resign from the Obama Administration to explore a potential presidential bid.

Because Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, is expected to run again for the nomination, that could make the reaction of Republican primary voters to the Mormon religion shared by both Romney and Huntsman doubly more interesting than it was in 2008.

Then, Romney felt he had to actually give a speech to deal with questions and doubts many Republican voters had about his Mormon faith.

It was a speech reminiscent of the famous one given in 1960 by then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy about religious tolerance and his own belief in separating the role of president from one's religious beliefs.

Anyway, on paper Huntsman could be a fascinating challenger to the president. He's a billionaire, so raising money is less of a problem for him. He's handsome.

While he's a pro-business fiscal conservative, he's moderate on the environment and gay issues, supporting civil unions, for instance.

Given all that, it's remarkable that Huntsman allowed President Obama to hamstring his effort to run for the GOP nomination. By accepting a role in the Obama Administration, Huntsman added significantly to the degree of difficulty of a run by him for the 2012 nomination.

Obama, with a Cheshire Cat smile, acknowledged as much during his recent joint White House news conference with Chinese president Hu Jintao. A reporter asked Obama about the rumors of a possible Huntsman presidential bid:

PRESIDENT OBAMA: First of all, let me just say I think Ambassador Huntsman has done an outstanding job as ambassador for the United States to China. He is a Mandarin speaker. He has brought enormous skill, dedication, and talent to the job. And the fact that he comes from a different party I think is a strength, not a weakness, because it indicates the degree to which both he and I believe that partisanship ends at the water's edge, and that we work together to advocate on behalf of our country.

So I couldn't be happier with the Ambassador's service. And I'm sure he will be very successful in whatever endeavors he chooses in the future. (Laughter.) And I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary. (Laughter.)

That's the crux of the matter. You could be forgiven for believing that Huntsman being part of the Obama Administration is the kiss of death for his presidential ambitions until proven otherwise.

It would be surprising if every Republican primary opponent didn't find some way to pound him on this.

And the White House is making sure that Republicans don't even have to work hard for attack lines. They're providing them. As Politico reported:

At an off-the-record dinner Saturday night, at which Huntsman was also present, White House Chief of Staff William Daley kept up the mockery.

"It's also good to see Jon Huntsman, our ambassador to China," Daley said, according to a source in the room. "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."

Maybe Huntsman can overcome his Obama connections in the Republican primaries. But as you can tell, it will be hard for him to do so, if the White House anything to say about it.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.