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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former U.S. ambassador to China Jon Huntsman formed a political action committee on Tuesday that will let him raise money, hire staff and travel ahead of an expected 2012 Republican presidential bid.
Huntsman, who left his post in Beijing and returned to the United States last week, filed papers to form H-PAC, an organization that will support his exploration of a potential race for the right to challenge President Barack Obama.
"This is an organizational step, this is not an announcement," spokesman Tim Miller said. "This will allow him to travel the country and support Republicans. When and if he is ready to make an announcement, he will make it."
Since his return from Beijing, Huntsman has been meeting potential staff and supporters at his Washington home and on Capitol Hill. The former two-term governor of Utah is widely expected to launch a presidential campaign in the coming weeks.
Supporters have been preparing for Huntsman's return for months but he had been prohibited from engaging in political activity until he left his ambassadorship.
Huntsman has scheduled a trip to the early voting states of South Carolina on Saturday and New Hampshire later this month for a pair of college commencement addresses as he begins to lay the groundwork for a campaign.
While he is relatively unknown nationally, Huntsman has created some buzz in Republican circles as a potential fresh face who could bring some energy to a slow-starting nominating race that has seen the emergence of few top-tier candidates.
Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum also formed a presidential exploratory committee on Tuesday, a move that will allow him to meet the guidelines for participation in Thursday's first Republican presidential debate.
The debate rules required that all participants have filed paperwork for at least a federal exploratory committee and have at least 1 percent support in five national polls.
Most of the big names in the potential Republican field, including Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, are skipping the South Carolina debate, which will be televised on Fox News.
"The debate this Thursday is a unique opportunity to put forth ideas and solutions to bring our economy back on track," Santorum said on Sean Hannity's radio show. "With Osama bin Laden's death, I look forward to also discussing in depth ways to tackle our many national security challenges."
The participants in the debate are expected to be former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, U.S. Representative Ron Paul, Santorum, former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and former Godfather's Pizza CEO Herman Cain.
Editing by Bill Trott