Huntsman gets behind Romney bid

Could Utah governor be rewarded for his efforts with Leavitt-like Cabinet post?

Published: Wednesday, May 25 2005 9:05 a.m. MDT

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, left, and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman chat during an April meeting in Salt Lake City.

Douglas C. Pizac, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

A Western, small-state governor gets active early in the next presidential race, backing a fellow GOP governor from a big state, writing briefing papers for him, lining up support — and ends up in his presidential Cabinet.

Yes, that was the road taken by former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt on behalf of President Bush, who was governor of Texas when he ran and won the presidency in 2000. Leavitt is now secretary of health and human services, overseeing the biggest budget in the federal government.

Is Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. walking a similar path?

Perhaps. Huntsman said Tuesday he wouldn't be interested in joining the presidential administration of the candidate he's backing for president, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. "I have the best (political) job in the world right now," Huntsman said.

Like Leavitt before him, however, Huntsman is an early supporter of a potential U.S. presidential candidate — in this case, Romney, a fellow Republican who is seen by many as gearing up to run for the nation's top office in 2008.

And like Leavitt, Huntsman is writing briefing papers for his man, working for him behind the scenes politically as well.

Huntsman told the Deseret Morning News editorial board Tuesday that he has written a foreign policy paper on China for Romney. Huntsman speaks Mandarin Chinese and has served as an ambassador to Singapore and as trade ambassador to the Far East.

"I've written a paper on China for him, because he asked," said Huntsman, who said he now plans on running for re-election himself in 2008.

Huntsman said he's also informally been talking to national security and foreign policy experts in Washington, D.C., lining up, if you will, smart people who might be willing to sign on with Romney if Romney ultimately gets into the race.

Romney's spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, said Huntsman was "very helpful" in providing information about a favorite topic of the Massachusetts governor — the challenges "posed by the emerging economies of the Far East, particularly China."

Huntsman, Fehrnstrom said, "is a good friend to Mitt Romney, and his advice is always welcome." He said the pair discussed Huntsman's involvement during a visit Romney made to Utah earlier this year.

But, Fehrnstrom noted, Romney is interested in what Huntsman has to say as a governor, not as a candidate for higher office. "He's not a presidential candidate. Gov. Romney is focused on the job of governing the state of Massachusetts," Fehrnstrom said.

Romney, who is up for re-election next year, will make an announcement about his political future in the fall, his spokesman said.

Like all Republicans who want to succeed Bush, who by the U.S. Constitution can't run again, Romney has not declared his 2008 candidacy. But the Massachusetts governor, considered a moderate in the GOP, has been moving more to the political right recently, as well as visiting states that hold early presidential caucuses or primaries.

Romney, of course, is well known in Utah, having headed the successful 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.

"I've told (Romney) that I'd help (him) in putting together a national security team," said Huntsman. "I've talked to some people in Washington, D.C., about keeping their powder dry" — not signing up with any other potential GOP national candidates. These people "are the best in this particular line of work."

Huntsman said it's still early, and some of the foreign policy experts may want to join up with some other GOP presidential candidates down the road.

"But I'll do whatever I can" for Romney, Huntsman said. "Mitt would make an excellent candidate. I'm probably the only governor who has come out this early" in supporting a potential GOP presidential candidate, he said.

Pooh-poohing the suggestion that he could end up in a Romney Cabinet, Huntsman said: "I couldn't have a better job in the world" over the next four years. "But I have no idea what the public will do with me after that" when he seeks re-election.

Leavitt promised when he ran for his third four-year term in 2000 that he would serve out his gubernatorial term. But in August 2003, with more than a year left in his term, Leavitt agreed to become Bush's administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, resigning his seat in November 2003.

After Bush won a second term, the president named Leavitt secretary of HHS.

While considered from the moderate wing of the Republican Party, Romney can win the GOP nomination, Huntsman said. He's not too moderate? "Recently, or two years ago?" Huntsman joked. "No. I think Mitt is a balanced politician.

"He can bring some very important states together in a most unusual way that perhaps a lot of people aren't focused on" — states that GOP presidential candidates have lost in recent elections.

"I'm talking about New England and the Mountain West. The industrial states of Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, where his family is remembered, where his roots run deep."

Romney's late father, George Romney, is a former governor of Michigan who ran for president as a Republican in 1968.

Huntsman said when one studies the electoral map, where delegates and early primaries line up, "it could be argued Mitt has a pretty good foundation already, good name recognition."

Huntsman's family has been active in national politics before. His father, Jon Huntsman Sr., was Elizabeth Dole's national fund-raising chairman when the now-U.S. senator ran for president in 2000.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com; lisa@desnews.com

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