A not-so-subtle message is being sent by GOP Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and Republican legislative leaders these days: "We will be pushing the political/candidate agenda in this state, thank you very much."

The more moderate Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and aging U.S. Sens. Orrin Hatch and Bob Bennett (both 74) can just step aside. State Sens. John Valentine and Curt Bramble; House Speaker Greg Curtis and other GOP legislative leaders and Shurtleff will take it from here.

Examples?

• In 2007, GOP legislative leaders pick Micron lobbyist Stan Lockhart (who has given around $60,000 in Jazz tickets to lawmakers over the years, is a close personal friend of Bramble's and husband to state Rep. Becky Lockhart, R-Provo) to be chairman of the Utah Republican Party. Huntsman looked around for a bit, but not finding anyone he liked to be party chair on his own, gave the nod to Valentine et al. to make the pick.

• This year, Shurtleff and GOP legislators back state Rep. Mark Walker, R-Sandy, to be the new state treasurer. At 32, Walker, a former Zions Bank midlevel manager, has limited experience in actually investing large sums of money. Treasurer Ed Alter, in office 28 years, is retiring. His chief deputy, Richard Ellis, who does have experience in big-money investing, thought he would just walk to the GOP nomination.

Nope — the new Republican power brokers had other ideas. Alter, who endorses Ellis, had at times butted heads with the GOP lawmakers. He wasn't much of a party-line guy, he thought being good at investing money was more important than meeting political conservative litmus tests, and he didn't bow appropriately when on the rare occasions the Republican legislative leaders came knocking.

Ellis had been Huntsman's head budget writer and fought GOP legislative leaders over various tax plans/budget priorities on behalf of his boss over the last few years before taking the top assistant job with Alter. (Huntsman has declined to take sides in the GOP treasurer's race — a high-brow neutral position not shared by Shurtleff et al.)

Several times Huntsman recommended a lower tax cut while GOP legislators wanted bigger tax cuts. Ellis was often Huntsman's guy arguing against bigger tax cuts both publicly and especially behind the scenes with GOP legislative leaders.

You can't make a bigger mistake with these GOP lawmakers than to cross them on their proposed tax cuts. (OK, GOP legislative conservatives can hold grudges against anti-voucher folks, too.)

Former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt crossed GOP legislative leaders a number of times. And when Leavitt resigned to join President Bush's administration in late 2003, there were no tears among legislative conservatives.

Gov. Olene Walker, who stepped up to Leavitt's office as his lieutenant governor, also got into some battles with GOP leaders — sometimes even doing it with glee. A number of GOP legislators were glad to see her defeated in the 2004 state Republican convention.

Huntsman — perhaps a bit too young, handsome, rich and moderate for legislative conservatives — has term-limited himself to eight years as governor. Assuming Huntsman wins this year, he leaves office in 2012.

And the political GOP sharks are already circling — the Republican Party chairmanship and treasurer's office campaigns are just early signs of what may be coming.

Will Huntsman, Hatch or Bennett step up to the political plate and take some more intra-party swings?

Or will they continue taking a back seat and let others run the grass-roots party functions — like picking candidates for party and state offices?

We may well be seeing a changing of the GOP power structure in Utah — at least behind the scenes.


Deseret News political editor Bob Bernick Jr. may be reached at bbjr@desnews.com.