The White House downplayed on Monday the speculation that its ambassador to China is resigning to pursue a campaign against President Obama.

Press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged that Jon Huntsman, the former Republican governor of Utah who serves as the top U.S. diplomat in China, will resign sometime early this year.

"Ambassador Huntsman has told several people inside this building that he plans to leave at the first part of this year," Gibbs said at his daily press briefing.

But Gibbs sought to dismiss any notion that Huntsman is resigning to pursue the 2012 Republican presidential nomination to unseat Obama.

"I want to be clear on this: I've talked to several people in the building and I have not heard any of them say that they know what the future holds for Ambassador Huntsman," Gibbs said.

Media reports on Monday have stirred up speculation that Huntsman, a relative centrist within the GOP, was resigning to run for president. He was a popular governor in Utah, but Obama's choice of Huntsman to become a top ambassador fueled conventional wisdom that Huntsman's career in GOP politics had come to an end.

Meanwhile, the administration has given its ambassador a kind of "kiss of death" with Republican primary voters by praising him for his service in the Democratic administration. Obama personally praised Huntsman for his service in mid-January, when asked about a possible challenge from the ambassador during a visit by China's president.

"When the president picked him in 2009, it was because we believe and continue to believe that he brings a broad range of experience to an extremely important ambassadorial post," Gibbs said Monday. "The president continues to believe that."