Jon Huntsman insists he wasn’t ‘gearing up’ 2012 bid while still in China

Holly Bailey

Ahead of his expected 2012 run, Jon Huntsman is pushing back against claims that he used his final months as President Obama's ambassador to China to assemble his own White House bid.

'There was no gearing up for a campaign, whatsoever," Huntsman insisted in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times' Adam Smith after an appearance last night in Florida.

"I didn't even know these people," Huntsman said, gesturing to several campaign aides who accompanied him on the trip. "I did not know them until I got off the plane . . . . These are all new friends."

That's an unusual argument for the former Utah governor to make, since most of his newly assembled campaign staff used to work for John McCain, and Huntsman frequently traveled with the McCain operation over the course of the 2008 campaign after he came out with an early endorsement of the Arizona senator.

Either way, there apparently was plenty of friction between Huntsman and the White House after the Republican hopeful went public with his presidential ambitions earlier this year.

An embassy official who worked closely with Huntsman in Beijing tells The Daily Beast's McKay Coppins that the Obama team began micromanaging Huntsman's schedule to make sure he wouldn't use his position to his own benefit—a move that did not please the then-ambassador.

Of course, there's a reason for the Obama team's wariness: top Democrats, who declined to be named, tell ABC's Jake Tapper they believe Huntsman would be the toughest Republican to beat in 2012. Still, with his moderate political profile, Huntsman probably wouldn't make it past the GOP primaries, Tapper's Democratic sources say.

(Photo of Obama and Huntsman: Charles Dharapak/AP)