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WASHINGTON -- Jon Huntsman Jr. for president in 2012?
President Barack Obama on Wednesday made light of speculation that his ambassador to China, former GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah, could run against him in 2012.
"I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary," said Obama, flashing a broad smile, as laughter broke out in the room.
Obama was asked about the Huntsman speculation at a press conference during the high-profile state visit of China's President Hu Jintao, who was sharing the stage with Obama, and Huntsman was seated directly in front of them.
Obama said Huntsman has done an outstanding job in what is considered one of the nation's top diplomatic posts. Obama praised Huntsman's Mandarin speaking ability, "enormous" skill, dedication and talent.
"Both he and I believe that partisanship ends at the water's edge," Obama said. "We work together to advocate on behalf of our country."
Huntsman hinted at a possible 2012 run in a recent article in Newsweek.
He also received solid local support in a Utah Policy/Exoro Group poll this week when Utahns were asked about a hypothetical run for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sen. Orrin Hatch.
In that poll, Utahns were asked who they'd like to see as GOP nominee for the seat. Forty-eight percent backed Huntsman, and 23 percent supported 3rd District Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who has hinted he might run. Hatch, who says he's definitely running again, also received 23 percent.
"From everything we've seen from Ambassador Huntsman, his vision probably seems to be more national and international at this point," said Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
Jowers, a Huntsman confidant, said the former Utah governor faces a tough decision, as the 2012 field is already coming into focus.
"2012 is very fast," Jowers said. "You see what certainly (Mitt) Romney, (Tim) Pawlenty, (Sarah) Palin, (Mike) Huckabee have been doing to prepare to potentially run for 2012," in terms of fundraising, travel and establishing campaign operations.
"But 2016 is daunting," said Jowers. "Once he comes back from China, how does he remain relevant and prepare himself for 2016? He, I'm sure, is in a very difficult spot of trying to figure out what the next step is upon leaving China."
Huntsman is considered a moderate in the GOP and had been seen by the White House as a possible 2012 contender before Obama tapped him in May 2009 for the Beijing post.
Huntsman was national co-chairman for Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential run.
He hasn't said whether he plans to leave China, fueling speculation he's at least thinking it over.
Obama added: "I couldn't be happier with the ambassador's service and I'm sure he will be very successful in whatever endeavors he chooses in the future."