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Huntsman to make Washington debut at correspondents dinner



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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. will make his debut as a possible GOP presidential candidate at the White House Correspondents Dinner Saturday night.

Huntsman, whose service as U.S. ambassador to China officially ends at midnight Saturday, has stayed quiet about whether he'll attempt to take on President Barack Obama in the 2012 election.


There's already speculation that Obama may single out Huntsman as a would-be rival, as he did earlier this year during a state visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao.

But he's chosen to return to the political world at one of the biggest annual events in the nation's capitol, the glitzy annual gathering of the Washington press corps that attracts stars from Hollywood as well as the beltway.

Huntsman is not expected to use the black tie occasion to announce his political plans because, his supporters insist, he won't be able to talk politics because he'll technically still be bound by diplomatic protocol.

That's why even though he's back in the United States, he isn't expected to meet until Monday with the political action committee formed by his supporters, Horizon PAC.

Clearly, though, Huntsman's attendance at the high-profile dinner will further the increasing interest in whether there's a White House bid in his political future — even if he doesn't say a word.

"That's the sort of thing candidates for presidents like to do, and that ambassadors wouldn't," University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said. "It makes it a slightly better story if we don't necessarily know the answers to the question."

There's already speculation that President Barack Obama may single out Huntsman at the dinner as a possible rival, as he did earlier this year during a state visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao.

Obama said then that Huntsman had done an "outstanding job" as ambassador, and would do well in any future endeavors. "And I'm sure that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary."

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The only other presidential contender expected to attend the dinner, "Celebrity Apprentice" TV star Donald Trump, isn't expected to be shy about talking about his ambitions.

Other would-be Republican presidential candidates are staying away from the dinner, including former Utah Olympic leader Mitt Romney, widely seen as a frontrunner after his 2008 bid.

Trump may well overshadow Huntsman at the dinner, especially if Huntsman is serious about staying mum until his ambassadorship ends Saturday, said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa.

"I don't know that the tabloids have been following him like they have 'The Donald,'" Hagle said, suggesting if Huntsman wants attention he may have to "stand up and jump on the table at midnight and say, 'I'm here.'"

Huntsman's supporters, already organized in key early primary states including New Hampshire and South Carolina, are ready to welcome him back to politics and anxious to hear his plans. He is scheduled to deliver commencement addresses on May 7 at the University of South Carolina and May 21 at Southern New Hampshire University.

"I think and hope he's going to run," said Peter Spaulding, a county commissioner and a top adviser in New Hampshire to Horizon PAC. "We're getting prepared for the eventuality."

Spaulding approved of Huntsman's first public appearance since returning from China.

"It's quite a homecoming," Spaulding said. "It's sort of like the Academy Awards of politics."

The host of the dinner is "Saturday Night Live" comedian Seth Meyers and the guest list includes actress Kate Hudson, actor Steve Buscemi and Twitter co-founder Evan Williams.

David Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina, said Huntsman's choice of a celebrity-filled coming out won't hurt him with voters — but it probably won't help much, either.

"The problem is just name recognition," Woodard said. But he said even those candidates who are better known to voters haven't sparked a lot of interest yet.

"It's wide open over here," Woodard said. "Huntsman, he could make a pretty good splash. But the point is, nobody's making a splash. So he's got to do something."

NBC's chief White House correspondent, Chuck Todd, said there's no clear favorite nationally yet, either.

"The race is still very fluid," Todd said. "We know Romney is going to be a finalist. We just don't know who is going to be the chief challenger or two."

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Story written with contributions from Lisa Riley Roche and John Daley.

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