Shock: Huntsman quits as Utah gov to be Obama's ambassador to China; Update: I couldn't say no, says Huntsman

And to think, some people accuse centrist Republicans of being Democrats in disguise.

The move is freighted with political intrigue. Huntsman, who speaks fluent Mandarin Chinese, quickly emerged after November as one of the leading moderate GOP voices…

Huntsman, who met with Obama’s transition team to discuss energy policy, was in Washington on Friday night, ahead of a planned Saturday announcement by the White House, The Salt Lake Tribune reported. Several Utah news organizations said the governor will resign and accept the appointment.

Huntsman, 49, served a Mormon mission in Taiwan. The governor and his wife, Mary Kaye, adopted a daughter, Gracie Mei, from China in 1999. In 2006, he led a trade mission to China “because of their prominence on the world stage and the way in which they are growing so rapidly,” he told the Deseret Morning News of Salt Lake City.

So much for the great moderate hope in 2012. What’s his angle here? Three possibilities: (a) Despite all appearances, he was never thinking of running for president. (b) He was thinking of running, but he’s enough of a patriot that he couldn’t say no when the president called on him. (c) He was aiming at 2016 all along and this is actually a brilliant move to burnish his bipartisan cred and his foreign-policy gravitas in advance, especially insofar as it makes him a player with a rising superpower like China. My only question is, how does he get back on the national stage after he’s done as ambassador? He could run against Utah’s lone Democratic congressman, I guess, but that’s not much of a perch from which to launch a presidential bid. Bob Bennett is 76 years old, but his Senate seat’s up next year; even if he’s planning to retire, Huntsman’s not going to quit Team Barry so soon to run for it. I can only assume he’s eyeing Orrin Hatch’s seat, which is up in 2012. Hatch will be 78 at the time, which isn’t old for a Senator but isn’t young either. If he does run for another term, though, then Huntsman’s frozen out. Maybe his interest in China is such that he simply couldn’t turn down the opportunity, whatever it might mean for his future ambitions.

Needless to say, in coopting a potential rival, it’s a typically cagey move by The One.

Update: To expand on that last thought, I don’t think anyone on Obama’s team considered Huntsman a serious threat to beat him in 2012 but they’re obviously keen for the public to perceive the GOP as “far right.” Hence their obsession with Rush. Huntsman was a threat to that strategy so they needed to get him off the national stage and as far away as possible. Mission accomplished.

Update: Tapper’s got terrific background on Huntsman’s relationships with the White House and with China. The money quote from this morning’s announcement:

Huntsman today said he “never expected” as national co-chair of John McCain’s presidential campaign to be standing there. But when the president asks for service, he said, “that to me is the end of the conversation.” Huntsman said first in Mandarin, then English, a Chinese saying: “Together we work. Together we progress.”