April 29, 2011 -- U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman officially leaves his post Saturday as the country's top diplomat in China -- a move that clears the way for a likely bid to unseat his former boss, President Obama, during the presidential election in 2012.
Huntsman, a Republican, has been coy about his presidential ambitions, saying publicly that he is "loyal to our country and our president."
But friends and colleagues say the former two-term governor of Utah seriously is considering making a run, and already has the fundamentals of a campaign operation in place to prove it.
Huntsman, 51, will make a splash back into national politics Saturday night with his expected attendance at the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner in Washington, D.C.
He also has planned visits next month to early the campaign states of South Carolina and New Hampshire, where supporters have created the nuclei of campaign teams to begin raising funds and lining up supporters and endorsements for Huntsman's political action committee, Horizon PAC.
Veteran political hand Peter Spaulding, who served as New Hampshire chairman for Sen. John McCain's 2000 presidential bid, is orchestrating the Huntsman effort there, scheduling meetings between the former ambassador and political movers and shakers and, perhaps, a local event or two with likely primary voters.
"New Hampshire has a history of retail politics, and if Gov. Huntsman is a candidate, we expect that he will make every effort to visit as many towns and talk to as many residents of New Hampshire as humanly possible," Spaulding said in an interview with ABC News.
Huntsman will become "almost a resident of New Hampshire" once he is an officially-announced candidate, Spaulding said, which could happen as soon as May 21, when Huntsman delivers a scheduled commencement address at Southern New Hampshire University.
Huntsman would join a wide-open field of prospective Republican presidential nominees and his youth and unique political stripes could shake up the early race.
Unlike other leading contenders, Huntsman has extensive foreign policy experience and socially moderate views.
He has worked in the administrations of the last four presidents, serving as a staff assistant to Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush's ambassador to Singapore and George W. Bush's deputy trade ambassador. He has served as Obama's ambassador to China since August 2009.
Huntsman opposes abortion, but supports same-sex civil unions. His gubernatorial record reflects a commitment to fiscal conservatism, but he also has publicly supported the Obama administration's economic stimulus plan and its effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through cap-and-trade.
Still, Huntsman may have strong appeal within the business community as a former executive in his family's company, Huntsman Corp., the world's largest chemical company. He also has significant personal fortune -- valued at between $11 million and $74 million, according to a 2009 financial disclosure form -- which could aid his bid. His father, Jon Huntsman, Sr., is a billionaire.
Upon entering the race, however, Huntsman would need to overcome virtual obscurity among the national Republican electorate, and ease likely concerns over his ties to President Obama.
In a personal letter to the president, obtained and published by the conservative website Daily Caller earlier this month, Huntsman praised Obama as a "remarkable leader -- and it has been a great honor getting to know you."
His religion -- Mormonism -- poses another potential hurdle.
Thirty-five percent of Americans from across the political spectrum said in a 2007 ABC News-Washington Post poll that they'd be less likely to support a presidential candidate who's a Mormon, though some experts now say that sentiment could be changing.
Whether Republican primary voters embrace Huntsman or not, Obama believes he could be a formidable candidate.
"I'm sure he will be very successful in whatever endeavors he chooses in the future," the president said when asked about a potential Huntsman candidacy earlier this year.
With a mischievous smile, the president added: "And I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary."