WASHINGTON // He was re-elected governor of Utah with an exceptional 78 per cent of the vote and has been touted as the Republicans' best chance to oust Barack Obama from the White House in 2012. So why is Jon Huntsman Jr giving all that up to accept a position in the Obama administration as ambassador to China? It is not that he does not have the credentials for the new job: he learnt to speak Chinese as a Mormon missionary in Taiwan and later worked in the commerce department and served as ambassador to Singapore and as deputy US trade ambassador before becoming the governor of Utah in 2004.
But an ambassador's role is, by nature, less public than a governor's - a quieter turn for Mr Huntsman, just as he was emerging as a national voice for a more inclusive Republican Party. About two weeks before Mr Huntsman's nomination as ambassador to China, David Plouffe, who managed Mr Obama's successful 2008 presidential campaign, said: "I think the one person in [the Republican] party who might be a potential presidential candidate is Gov Jon Huntsman of Utah."
Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said that although Mr Huntsman was looking like an interesting presidential candidate, "the reality of his future for 2012 was more difficult". For one thing, Mr Obama is hugely popular and would be tough to dislodge. More immediately, Mr Huntsman, a moderate Republican, would have to contend with his own party, which, after major defeats in the past few years, is undergoing a soul-searching period that has pitted right-wing elements against moderates.
As Utah governor, Mr Huntsman broke with conservatives in his party by signing on to a regional initiative to reduce greenhouse gases with a carbon cap-and-trade programme and by publicly supporting civil unions for same-sex couples, a move that also demonstrated independence from his church. While he takes more conservative stands on many other issues, his moderate views would probably not play well in the next few years with Republican voters, who have been tending towards more conservative candidates, even though they are less likely to win a general election.
Not surprisingly, there was little criticism from within his party about his acceptance of the post, reflecting, some observers say, a desire to purge some of the more moderates from the party. Mr Jowers said that time and experience on the other side of the globe would only improve Mr Huntsman's position for national politics later - including, possibly, a presidential bid in 2016. "He was able to be a key voice in the current Republican self-identification crisis, but he doesn't have to be a part of the coming war on it. And he may very well return when the Republican Party is more at ease with itself," Mr Jowers said.
"I imagine that Gov Huntsman will take the steps necessary to be ready to run [for president] at some point in the future. It's so far away and it's such a moment of chance, that all you can do is take the steps necessary ? When he returns, he will not be simply an interesting small-state governor, but a high-level diplomat." In an unusual move, Mr Obama personally announced the nomination at a press conference last month in Washington, where he talked up the significance of the position. "Given the breadth of issues at stake in our relationship with China, this ambassadorship is as important as any in the world," Mr Obama said.
The actual role of an ambassador, however, is fairly limited, according to Robert Daly, the director of the Institute for Global Chinese Affairs at the University of Maryland. "While it is surely one of the most fascinating jobs in the world, I think the importance of it has been somewhat exaggerated," Mr Daly, a former diplomat who has worked at the American Embassy in Beijing, said. "Policy is primarily made in Washington."
Ambassadors often work behind the scenes, but Mr Huntsman will have the opportunity to explain China to high-level policymakers. He appears also to have the attention of the president and other administration officials, which could put him in a stronger position to advocate for rational China policy, according to Mr Daly. The next step for Mr Huntsman is confirmation by the US Senate. Although he has won unanimous Senate confirmation on two occasions in the past and is likely to draw wide support from both Democrats and Republicans this time, his ties to a family company with a strong presence in China are likely to come up.
Mr Huntsman's résumé includes work for Huntsman Corporation, a chemical company founded by his father and currently run by his brother. The firm says its 2008 revenues exceeded US$10 billion (Dh36.7bn) and that it expects sales to grow by more than $1bn in China and throughout South East Asia over the next two years. Such ties could put him in a position to gain from China policies he advocates, but Mr Daly noted that the governor could also spin his company ties as an asset because they have given him hands-on, China-related business experience.
As for policy, no major shifts are expected in US-China relations. In the meantime, if the confirmation hearings go smoothly, bringing another popular Republican into the administration helps Mr Obama score points with moderates of both parties. His nomination of Mr Huntsman has been described by political commentators in the US as "a political coup" and a "masterstroke of political strategy". * The National