PAC sends strong signal for Huntsman presidential run

Published: Thursday, Oct. 28 2010 6:00 p.m. MDT

Jon Huntsman Jr.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A presidential bid by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. may be more likely than ever with the formation of a new political action committee by powerful supporters who want him in the race.

Huntsman, who stepped down as governor in August 2009 to become the U.S. ambassador to China, has also just bought a new $3.6 million home in Washington, D.C., even though he's not expected to leave Beijing for at least another year.

No money has been raised yet by R-PAC, created in August in Utah ostensibly to help fund Republican candidates around the country who share Huntsman's moderate politics. Similar PACs are planned for other states as well as at the federal level.

But those behind the fundraising effort, including John Weaver, a top strategist for 2008 Republican presidential candidate Arizona Sen. John McCain, stand ready to back a Huntsman run for the White House.

The attorney for the PAC, Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said it amounts to an effort to draft Huntsman to run, most likely in 2016.

"Supporters of Gov. Huntsman want to create an entity that can support 'Huntsman-esque' candidates and potentially provide a vehicle when he returns to the States, should he be interested in future office," Jowers said.

As a diplomat, Huntsman has been careful not to talk politics. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in China said Huntsman was not available to discuss his political future and declined to comment.

When President Barack Obama, a Democrat, chose him for the prestigious ambassadorship, Huntsman was already preparing for the 2012 GOP presidential race after playing a significant role in McCain's campaign.

With the help of Weaver, Huntsman had started traveling to places like South Carolina and Michigan to meet with Republican movers and shakers and was looking at forming a leadership PAC similar to those of other would-be presidential candidates.

Leadership PACS, such as Mitt Romney's Free and Strong America PAC, allow potential presidential candidates to raise money to support other party members in the hopes the favor will be returned once they declare their candidacy.

Draft committees are different. The potential candidate is not involved, although the purpose is the same — building a campaign network that demonstrates there's support for him or her to run for president, while generating publicity for a potential campaign.

Weaver downplayed the PAC's benefits to Huntsman. He insisted it is "not designed in any way, shape or form to lay the groundwork for anyone," even though he played a key role in Huntsman's earlier exploration of a presidential bid.

"Myself and others urged him to consider running for the nomination in 2012," Weaver said. "He was in the beginning stages of doing that when he was asked to take on this major role in foreign policy."

Still, he said, Huntsman has a bright future.

"He's a young man. He has a lot to offer this country," Weaver said. "What happens down the road, happens down the road."

Tim Riester, whose Phoenix-based advertising agency has offices in Salt Lake and Los Angeles, said he's part of the PAC because Huntsman is a role model for Republican candidates.

"I'm excited for his future," Riester said. After meeting Huntsman through the McCain campaign, Riester said he'll support him in "anything he'd do to help this country."

Others involved in the PAC include Zion Bank President Scott Anderson and former Texas congressman Tom Loeffler, an influential lobbyist and a major fundraiser for McCain.

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