Updated 6:15 p.m. Eastern Time
Republican Jon Huntsman, the U.S. Ambassador to China, has delivered a resignation letter to the White House ahead of a possible 2012 presidential run, CBS News has confirmed. The resignation is effective April 30, 2011.
White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said earlier Monday that Huntsman will resign from his post during "the first part of this year" - adding to speculation that the former Utah governor is exploring a run.
"Ambassador Huntsman has told several people inside this building that he plans to leave during the first part of this year," Gibbs said at his press briefing on Monday afternoon. "I've talked to several people in the building, and I have not heard anybody say they know what the future holds for Ambassador Huntsman, except to say that he will leave sometime in the first part of this year."
According to Politico, which first reported the resignation letter, Huntsman hand-delivered the resignation letter to the White House.
Huntsman, who is cast by supporters as a pro-business consensus builder, has relatively moderate positions on issues like gay rights, immigration, and the environment. He has long been seen as a potentially strong contender for the GOP presidential nomination. After his appointment to the ambassadorship to China in 2009, however, many believed Huntsman had been effectively sidelined as a 2012 rival.
Recent reports indicate that Huntsman may nonetheless be contemplating a bid. According to Politico, the former governor "made plain that he was eyeing a White House campaign in the near term" during a recent visit with former presidential nominee John McCain.
A team of Huntsman supporters and political operatives have set up an operation called "HorizonPAC" which could serve as a campaign apparatus for Huntsman were he to decide to enter the race.
The former governor has not spoken publicly about the possibility of a bid, though President Obama was asked about it last week.
"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," Mr. Obama told reporters. He then quipped: "And I'm sure that him having worked so well for me will be a great asset in any Republican primary."
At an off-the-record dinner over the weekend - at which Huntsman was present - Mr. Obama's new chief of staff, William Daley, also offered a joke about a possible Huntsman candidacy.
"It's also good to see Jon Huntsman, our ambassador to China," Daley said, a source told Politico. "Or as we call him around the White House: the Manchurian Candidate. I want Jon to know that the president has no hard feelings. In fact, he just did an interview with the Tea Party Express saying how integral he has been to the success of the Obama administration."
The remarks by the president and his chief of staff go to the conventional wisdom about Huntsman: That while he would be a strong general election candidate he may have a hard time getting through the GOP primaries, where his relative moderation and ties to Mr. Obama could hamper him.
David Plouffe has said in the past that Huntsman, a Mormon from a wealthy Utah family, was the one potential 2012 opponent who made the Obama administration "a wee bit queasy."
In his briefing today, Gibbs said the president remained satisfied with Huntsman's performance on the job.
"When the president picked him in 2009 it was because we believed and continue to believe he brings a broad range of experience to an extremely important ambassadorial post," Gibbs said. "The president continues to believe that."
In what could be construed as something of a warning for Huntsman to keep focused on his current job, the press secretary added: "The President, and I think the American people, expect that somebody who holds the post of Ambassador from the United States to China will dedicate their full energy and time to that position, and we believe that Ambassador Huntsman believes that as well."