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.
Matthew Wilson, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who specializes in religion and politics, said Huntsman has a lot of work to do to be a viable candidate.
"Right now, he's pretty much off the national radar screen. The next step for him would be to give himself a platform," Wilson said, and that's where the PAC could come in.
Using the PAC to build political allies among GOP candidates could help increase Huntsman's visibility among the same party activists needed in a presidential race, he said.
There's plenty of time between now and 2016 to accomplish that goal. "Low key at this state is fine," Wilson said. "You do need to start laying the groundwork of connections, support and favors with people within the party."
Of course, waiting until 2016 risks running against a fellow Republican elected in 2012. Romney, a Mormon like Huntsman, is among the likely GOP candidates in 2012.
It may already be too late anyway for 2012, said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. The state's caucuses are traditionally the first test of presidential candidates.
"As far as we're concerned here in Iowa, the caucuses start on the 3rd of November," Hagle said. He acknowledged he knows little about Huntsman.
Wilson said Huntsman's new home in Washington could help him cultivate the national political contacts who can raise his profile, although the address likely rules out that he'll run for office again in Utah.
In early October, Washingtonian magazine's website reported Huntsman purchased for $3.6 million mansion in an upscale area of Washington, D.C., that was used for the filming of Bravo's Top Chef television show.
Lisa Roskelley, who served as Huntsman's spokeswoman when he was governor and now helps run his PAC, said the purchase wasn't politically motivated.
"It's kind of a home base," Roskelley said, since the Huntsman's older children are either attending college or working back East. When Huntsman travels back to the United States as ambassador, she said he spends much of his time in the area.
Although the Huntsmans sold their home in Salt Lake City after his election in 2004 to move into the governor's mansion, Roskelley said the new residence in Washington doesn't mean he's cutting his ties to Utah.
"It's safe to say Huntsman has a very special place in his heart for Utah always," she said.