Pay close attention to the seating arrangement when Chinese President Hu Jintao attends Wednesday’s state dinner at the White House. Among President Obama’s guests will be the U.S. ambassador to China, Republican Jon Huntsman, who recently declined to rule out challenging his boss in 2012.
When the president tapped Huntsman, then Utah’s governor, to serve as his man in Beijing, it looked like a clever way to sideline a potential Republican rival. Now, Huntsman’s purchase of a high-priced home in one of Washington’s swankiest neighborhoods has even some members of his own party scratching their heads.
“That would be very strange if he were to run,’’ said David Norcross, an influential Republican National Committee member and Washington lobbyist. “I guess he could say, ‘I was in China and had nothing to do with the train wreck that is the Obama administration?’ ’’
Of course, there are other potential directions for Huntsman’s political ambitions. A new Utah Policy poll released over the weekend shows that 48 percent of Utahns would support their former governor if he were to challenge six-term Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, for reelection next year.
But it’s the potential of an “Et tu, Jon?’’ challenge to Obama that has the buzz machine humming.
Believe it or not, there is a historical precedent for an ambassador running against his own administration, observed former White House advisor Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution.
Just as Obama did in 2009, President John F. Kennedy sent a potential GOP challenger, ex-senator Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., to the other side of the globe, naming him ambassador to Vietnam. A moderate Republican like Huntsman, Lodge went on to defeat Barry Goldwater and Nelson Rockefeller in the 1964 New Hampshire primary -- as a write-in candidate.
“I think the Huntsman thing is intriguing,’’ said Bill Miller, national political director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which does not intervene in presidential contests. “Unlike most other years when Republicans have looked at their field and there’s a vice president' or a president, or an established frontrunner, that’s not the case this time. I think that’s probably a healthy thing.’’
To be sure, Huntsman looks like the longest of longshots. Serving as the governor of Utah is hardly a springboard to national office, and working for Obama seems a fatal flaw in a GOP primary. He is, however, the son of a billionaire who could presumably use his personal wealth to launch a dark-horse campaign.
“It passes the laugh test, but he hasn’t played on the national scene,’’ said conservative activist Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. “It’s often tough to see someone as a candidate until they put on their wings.’’