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Obama set to pick Utah GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman as China ambassador (Updated))

May 15, 2009 | 10:42 pm

Utah Republican Governor Jon Huntsman

(UPDATE: He did it and, as usual, The Ticket has all the details, color and full transcript right over here.)

Unofficial reports late tonight indicate President Obama is about to name Utah's Republican Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. as U.S. ambassador to China. Possibly as early as Saturday.

The 49-year-old Huntsman, who was national co-chair of John McCain's losing White House bid last year, is the latest in a fast-disappearing breed of moderate Republican state chief executives who, as late as 2000, virtually ruled the Rocky Mountain corridor of states for the GOP.

George W. Bush drew heavily on them, making Montana's Marc Racicot chairman of the Republican National Committee and chair of his re-election campaign, Utah's Mike Leavitt as secretary of Health and Human Services and Idaho's Dirk Kempthorne as secretary of the Interior.

Huntsman himself was an intern in the Reagan administration and served Bush I as ambassador to Singapore. He was also deputy U.S. trade representative during much of the first term of Bush II. He is an expert on China, speaking fluent Mandarin, not the most common language heard in Utah. Huntsman learned the language during his two-year LDS mission in -- can we say it here? -- the other China, Taiwan.

He is a native-born Californian (Palo Alto), the son of billionaire businessman Jon Huntsman and, like Senate Democrat Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Mormon. A Huntsman appointment would require Senate approval.

Huntsman and his wife, Mary Kaye, have five biological children of their own and two adopted -- one from China and one from India. (See photo below.)

After his initial gubernatorial election with 57% of the vote in 2004, Huntsman was elected to a second term last November with a whopping 77% of the vote. Huntsman has sought to nudge...

...his party more toward the middle. Although he supported a successful 2004 state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, he does support civil unions for gays.

His lieutenant governor, Gary Herbert, who's more conservative, would ascend to the governor's office if the appointment comes, possibly Saturday morning, although governors usually don't resign until after Senate confirmation. Herbert would then need to run in a special election next year for the remainder of the four-year term.

Obama's public schedule is clear for Saturday. Huntsman is said to be in Washington. And an unexpected bipartisan announcement like this would make a helpful positive splash in Sunday newspapers and on the TV talk shows. (Unless Huntsman eventually pulls an unlikely Judd Gregg, as happened with a previous bipartisan appointment.)

Not that political considerations would ever figure into any White House personnel decisions. Hyde Park forfend!

But if suspicions about Huntsman's GOP presidential ambitions for 2012 are accurate, having the Republican as a bipartisan member of the Obama team on the far side of the planet just might make it more difficult for Huntsman to criticize the Democrat someday. Living in Beijing certainly makes it more difficult to hop over to Iowa for a quick weekend of Lincoln Day chicken dinners.

Heading the American diplomatic delegation in Beijing did give Bush I valuable foreign policy experience and exposure that eventually led to his selection as VP on Ronald Reagan's ticket.

Not to mention forcing the lesser-known Herbert to contest a special election against a Democrat next year.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Utah Republican Governor Jon Huntsman and his wife Mary Kaye in India in 2006 with their two adopted children

Photo: Jon M. Huntsman Jr. and wife Mary Kaye in India in 2006 with their two adopted children, Gracie Mei, left, and Asha Bharati. Credit: Associated Press; Getty Images

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