Word that President Obama's ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, will be leaving the administration in a matter of months revived speculation today that the former Utah governor will seek the Republican presidential nomination—along with some skepticism about his ability to win over GOP primary voters.
Huntsman hand-delivered his resignation letter today, said a source familiar with the situation. The source did not want to be identified because the letter has not been released. An administration official said the resignation is effective April 30.
The source said the former governor sped up his resignation because it felt unseemly to jockey for the GOP nomination while serving in the administration. White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was forced earlier today to respond to questions about Huntsman's status and his potential candidacy after weeks of reports that the ambassador has begun quietly laying the groundwork for a campaign.
Huntsman has not indicated to the White House whether he plans to run against the president, Gibbs said.
“I want to be clear on this from up here: I’ve talked to several people in the building. And I have not heard anybody say they know what the future holds for Ambassador Huntsman except to say that he will leave some time in the first part of the year,” Gibbs told reporters at a White House briefing.
Whether he’s running or not, Huntsman’s potential candidacy was the topic du jour in Washington political circles. Most observers have a simple question on their mind: How can a former Obama official gain traction among Republican voters, many of whom are viscerally opposed to anything and everything the president has done?
"It appears that he has a tough road for the nomination with the Republican primary electorate as it’s currently composed,” said Mark Harris, who ran Republican Pat Toomey’s victorious senatorial campaign in Pennsylvania last year. “Unlike every other nominee with a path to victory, I don’t see one for him.”
Republican primary voters in 2010 swung fiercely behind candidates whom they perceived as the most conservative in the field, rebelling against more-established, moderate choices. Huntsman’s record on environmental and gay issues would suggest that he has more in common with someone like Senate candidate Michael Castle in Delaware than the woman who defeated him in the GOP primary, Christine O’Donnell.
Moreover, Huntsman is likely to be competing with Mitt Romney, a fellow Mormon with deep ties in Utah, for many of the same financial supporters. Though he has not formally declared his intention to seek the presidency again, Romney is perceived as the GOP front-runner. In papers filed with the Federal Election Commission today, Romney's Free & Strong America political action committee reported collecting $6.3 million in contributions last year.
It's rare but not unprecedented for an ambassador to leave a foreign posting to challenge the president who sent him there. President Kennedy appointed a potential GOP challenger, former Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge, to an ambassadorship in Vietnam. Lodge, a moderate Republican like Huntsman, went on to defeat Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller in the 1964 New Hampshire primary—as a write-in candidate.
Although a Huntsman campaign would appear ill-equipped to appeal to social conservatives in early primary states like Iowa and South Carolina, it would not be without important assets. His time in China gives him foreign policy credentials few potential opponents, aside from former U.N. ambassador John Bolton, could match. His moderate streak and experience as a governor might make him similar to Romney, but unlike the GOP front-runner, he governed deep-red Utah, not dark blue Massachusetts—a fact he could use to burnish his credibility with the GOP's right wing.
"He could ask people, 'Do you think people in Utah would elect anyone other than an extremely conservative governor?'" said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University.
Two groups with well-known reputations for dispatching moderate Republicans appeared willing to keep an open mind about Huntsman. A spokesman for the Tea Party Express, which backed conservative insurgents last year in Republican primaries from Alaska to Delaware, said he welcomed “new, serious entrants into the race.”
“The Americans who make up the tea party movement will be looking for an inspiring candidate that stands out as an effective leader and advocate for fiscal responsibility and constitutionally limited government,” Levi Russell said. “If Huntsman enters the race, he’ll have the chance to show America what he’s made of.”
A spokesman for the Club for Growth, another group that has targeted moderate Republicans in the past, said that the ex-governor’s lack of a record at the federal level makes it difficult to judge him as a candidate. But he indicated that Huntsman’s service in Obama’s administration doesn't make him a nonstarter.
“We judge people based on record and principles and not who they work for in the past,” said the spokesman, Mike Connolly.