U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman has told the White House he plans to resign, fueling speculation he may be laying the groundwork to run for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.

Ambassador Huntsman has told several people inside this building that he plans to leave ... during the first part of this year, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on Monday.

Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, would join what is expected to be a large field of Republicans seeking the nomination to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in 2012.

Huntsman has been Obama's China envoy for the past two years and if he runs he would likely face questions from conservative Republican voters as to why he worked for Obama.

When pressed on his views about whether Huntsman was planning a run, Gibbs said that among the White House staff, I have not heard anybody say they know what the future holds for Ambassador Huntsman.

The Washington Post reported that at Saturday night's Alfalfa Club dinner, an annual VIP event, White House chief of staff Bill Daley jokingly referred to Huntsman as the Manchurian Candidate.

Obama made light of a potential Huntsman run when asked about it January 19 at a joint news conference with visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao.

I'm sure the fact that him having worked so well with me will be a great asset in any Republican primary, Obama quipped.

Huntsman, a moderate Republican, is the son of Jon Huntsman Sr., a billionaire and founder of the Huntsman Corp., a global chemicals manufacturer.