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05.18.09 6:21 AM ET

The Next McCain?

Jon Huntsman’s decision to take the China ambassadorship follows a calculus that positions him as the Republicans’ new maverick—and a presidential contender in 2016.

President Barack Obama pulled off an extraordinary political rendition this week—snatching one of his potential Republican rivals for the 2012 election and shipping him off to China.

Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. had laid claim to John McCain’s maverick mantle and, while publicly coy about his ambition, insiders here in Salt Lake City tell me that he was serious about his presidential aspirations: He met with top national political consultants and was in the early stages of creating a national political action committee that would make his White House intentions clear.

Obama derailed that on May 5 in a private Oval Office meeting, where he offered the governor the job of ambassador to China, a position Huntsman was uniquely qualified for in a nation that he has been fascinated with since boyhood. An anecdote I was told this weekend: At age 11, Huntsman, whose father worked in the Nixon White House, helped haul Henry Kissinger’s luggage to a waiting helicopter when the secretary of State embarked on his secret mission to Beijing in 1971.

If this all sounds very McCain-like, that’s not a coincidence. Huntsman became McCain’s national co-chairman during the last election, prompting much griping as most Utah Republicans were lining up behind Mitt Romney, who ran the state’s 2002 Winter Olympics.

Without a doubt, he’s been groomed for this job ever since. We’ve all read how he speaks Mandarin fluently, adopted a daughter from Jiangsu Province, conducted business in the region, and served as ambassador to Singapore and deputy U.S. Trade Representative for the region. Visit his office, and you’ll find it adorned with Asian art, and at every opportunity, he slips in a Chinese phrase or Confucian aphorism.

“It’s a spectacular pick,” Evan Feigenbaum, a China expert with the Council on Foreign Relations and former State Department official in the Bush administration, tells me. “I think he’s someone who operates politically at a level the Chinese will appreciate.”

That political savvy has been on display in Utah since his first election in 2004. His approval ratings were recently in the mid-80s, despite (or maybe due to) his willingness to challenge the Utah orthodoxy, both his Republican Party and, more remarkably, the Mormon Church, the faith to which about two-thirds of the state’s residents belong.

Early in his first term, he advocated for protections for gay partners for things like hospital visitation and inheritance, and more recently went a step further, supporting civil unions. It was met with howls from conservatives that they had been stabbed in the back.

He liberalized liquor laws that were crafted 40 years earlier with the church’s help and had befuddled drinkers ever since. And he committed Utah  to a regional cap-and-trade effort to combat climate change, to the outrage of Utah’s coal, oil, and gas industry.

If this all sounds very McCain-like, that’s not a coincidence. Huntsman became McCain’s national co-chairman during the last election, prompting much griping as most Utah Republicans were lining up behind Mitt Romney, who ran the state’s 2002 Winter Olympics.

Since last year’s Republican wipeout, Huntsman has criticized of the party the way McCain once did. Galled by the stranglehold of the religious right, he has challenged the party to open itself up to young voters and new ideas. He’s a fan of motocross, and has a collection of guitars and drums in the basement of the governor’s mansion.  His message resonated in some quarters, and his national profile in recent months had climbed, as Republicans from around the country approached him for speaking engagements and urged him to run for the White House. He met recently with former McCain strategist John Weaver, architect of McCain’s insurgent 2000 campaign and an adviser on the 2008 reprise.

The China dispatch maybe be a short-term detour, but one with little downside. “2012 looked almost impossible for him, despite how well he’d been doing getting publicity,” says Kirk Jowers, a University of Utah political-science professor and attorney who has worked with both the McCain and Romney camps. Huntsman supported for federal stimulus (unlike Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford), which makes him a hard sell with primary voters, and having Romney in the campaign could split the Mormon donor base that both men would lean on.

But 2016? Jowers finds that “very interesting, giving Huntsman the chance to burnish his credentials in the mold of another China ambassador: George H.W. Bush. “The ambassadorship to China… changes the whole way the country will look at Jon Huntsman,” says Jowers. “He goes from being a small-state governor to being a real global diplomat and the person who was entrusted with arguably the country’s most important foreign policy at a very critical time.”

Plus, by that point, the landscape will have changed, and working with the Democrats—something that McCain has made a habit of, but which seems a fatal quality among the base now—might be much more of an asset. Rest assured, this son of billionaire whose company produced the Styrofoam containers that housed eggs and Big Macs for decades, might be going halfway around the world, but he’s not going anyplace far politically.

“I think there was a desire that my father had to see what was over the next peak,” says Peter Huntsman, the soon-to-be ambassador’s brother. “I think of lot of what drives Jonny in Asia is to continue that challenge.”

Robert Gehrke, the senior government reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune, has covered Utah politics for 14 years, including seven years from Washington, D.C.