The Manchurian Candidate

Article excerpt

Byline: McKay Coppins

When Barack Obama posted Jon Huntsman to Beijing, it looked like a crafty way to sideline a 2012 rival. Don't bet on it.

The Huntsmans' new home in the posh D.C. neighborhood of Kalorama is the prototype of pricey Washington real estate: a tall, boxy structure defined by red brick and right angles. Last spring, Bravo used the space to film its reality show Top Chef: Washington, D.C., but on a Sunday morning in mid-December, the spacious rooms on the first floor were largely unfurnished. "We've been living out of boxes for the last two years," says Jon Huntsman Jr., who resigned the Utah governorship in 2009 to become U.S. ambassador to China. "We're just now unpacking things we didn't even remember we had. It's like Christmas."

The federal-style house attracted a small wave of Utah media attention last fall when Washingtonian magazine first noted the Huntsmans' $3.6 million purchase on its real-estate page. It was just the sort of trivial Beltway gossip that lends itself to breathless interpretation by local political reporters, and both Salt Lake City dailies dutifully ran articles speculating that the hometown hero might soon return to the States gunning for higher office. It wasn't a ridiculous notion. The moderate Republican had once been considered a rising star in the GOP and a likely 2012 contender, with David Plouffe, Barack Obama's campaign mastermind, even identifying Huntsman as the only Republican who made him "a wee bit queasy" about the next race. But speculation ended abruptly in 2009 when Obama tapped Huntsman for the ambassadorship. National pundits called the appointment a shrewd move by the White House to sideline a potential rival, and then promptly forgot about him--which is probably why last fall's Beehive State buzz was drowned out on the national stage by the noise of the midterms.

Now, it appears, the ambassador is ready to make some noise of his own. Sitting in the echo-y living room of his new Washington home, Huntsman, a tall, lean man with silver hair and impeccable posture, pauses only briefly when faced with the question of presidential aspirations. "You know, I'm really focused on what we're doing in our current position," he says. "But we won't do this forever, and I think we may have one final run left in our bones." Asked whether he is prepared to rule out a run in 2012 (since it would require him to campaign against his current boss), he declines to comment.

The winking response--about as close to a hat-in-ring announcement as you'll get from a sitting member of the incumbent's administration--could just be a hollow cry for attention. But sources close to Huntsman (who requested anonymity to speak freely without his permission) say that during his December trip to the U.S., he met with several former political advisers in Washington and Salt Lake City to discuss a potential campaign. "I'm not saying he's running," says one supporter who has worked with him in the past. "But we're a fire squad; if he says the word, we can get things going fast." What's more, Huntsman tells NEWSWEEK that when he accepted the ambassadorial appointment, he promised his family they would "come up for air" sometime in 2010 to decide how much longer they would stay in Beijing. "I'm not announcing anything at all," he says. But he sure seems to be hinting.

The cable-news crowd will undoubtedly scoff at Huntsman's prospects in a Republican primary. After a right-wing resurgence flooded Congress with Tea Party Republicans, the field doesn't appear particularly inviting to a moderate Obama appointee. But an increasingly vocal segment of the GOP is worried that the conservative populism of 2010 is distracting the party from its more pressing priorities. "We may be confusing a clearing in the forest for being out of the woods," says Republican strategist John Weaver, who notes young voters' disapproval of some of the party's social agenda. …