WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Republican Jon Huntsman headed to China as ambassador nearly two years ago he praised his new boss, U.S. President Barack Obama, as "a remarkable leader." Now he is expected to launch a campaign to boot him from the White House.
Huntsman, a popular former Utah governor with a gold-plated resume, has just returned to the United States after resigning his post in Beijing to consider a run for the 2012 Republican nomination to challenge Obama.
He already has a campaign staff-in-waiting -- a political action committee packed with veteran Republicans -- and trips scheduled to the crucial early voting states of South Carolina and New Hampshire.
But Huntsman's low national profile, moderate record on some social issues and time spent as Obama's man in Beijing raise doubts about his ability to win over the conservative activists who dominate the Republican nominating process.
"Working for the Obama administration is going to be an albatross around Huntsman's neck, it's going to be brought up time and time again. That issue is a walking pinata," Republican consultant Ron Bonjean said.
Huntsman's supporters say widespread voter dissatisfaction with the still-forming Republican field and a burning desire to find the challenger best suited to beating Obama in the general election will propel a Huntsman White House bid.
"There is substantial reluctance among Republican primary voters to settle for the current field, they are not happy with the array of choices," said Republican Whit Ayres, who has signed up to be Huntsman's pollster if he makes a run.
"There is clearly a need and desire for a fresh face and a new conservative voice, and Governor Huntsman can be that fresh face," he said.
Huntsman's experience, good looks and personable style make him a White House candidate out of central casting, although he is unknown nationally and has been out of the political loop for nearly two years while in Beijing.
He is a Mormon, like potential rival Mitt Romney, which could be a stumbling block for religious conservatives. But he did not support Romney in 2008, backing Senator John McCain instead.
He would run as a pragmatist whose record in Utah included accomplishments on tax reform and economic growth, along with faithful opposition to abortion rights and gun control. But social conservatives will frown on his support for civil unions and a regional cap-and-trade system on carbon emissions.
Fresh off the plane from China, Huntsman attended a Washington dinner on Saturday night of celebrities, media figures and political players in another signal he might jump into the Republican nomination race.
YIN AND YANG
When Obama appointed Huntsman to Beijing in 2009 it was seen as a shrewd political move that took a potential rival out of the picture. But for Huntsman, 51, the job capped a longstanding interest in China and Asia.
He has an adopted Chinese daughter and learned to speak Mandarin on a Mormon mission to Taiwan during college. His 1992 appointment as U.S. ambassador to Singapore made him the youngest head of a U.S. diplomatic mission in a century.
Huntsman's supporters say his work for Obama in China should not be an issue with primary voters. "He was asked by the President of the United States to serve his country in an area of his expertise and he answered the call," Ayres said.
But his problems on the issue deepened recently when the Daily Caller online newspaper published a letter Huntsman sent Obama before he left for China calling him "a remarkable leader" and saying "it was a great honor" to get to know him.
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is likely to succeed President Hu Jintao as the top Communist Party and state leader from late 2012, praised Huntsman before he departed Beijing.
"We are reluctant to see him go. You are an old friend of the Chinese people," Xi told Huntsman in public.
Perceived ties to Beijing could hurt Huntsman among U.S. voters upset at the loss of U.S. jobs and prestige to China.
Signaling the Democratic approach to Huntsman, Obama has been happy to smother him with heavy praise and frequent jokes about their closeness in hopes of administering the kiss of political death to a Republican.
"My dear, dear friend Jon Huntsman," Obama said with a laugh at a recent Washington press dinner. "Nobody has done more for my administration. He's the yin to my yang."
Richard Quinn, a South Carolina consultant who headed McCain's 2000 and 2008 state campaigns, said he was sold on Huntsman after meeting him at a dinner with other potential supporters in South Carolina in early 2009.
"He is comfortable in his shoes. He is very relaxed and isn't programmed," Quinn said. "He looks as good as Romney, except he has a personality."
A Huntsman candidacy would test that theory in a party increasingly dominated by conservative Tea Party activists who carried out a string of primary upsets of establishment Republicans in last year's congressional elections.
"His candidacy will be an excellent measure of how far right the party has moved over the last few years," said Dan Schnur, a Republican McCain aide in 2000 who now works at the University of Southern California.
(Additional reporting by Eric Johnson in Chicago; Editing by Alistair Bell and Paul Simao)
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