Huntsman still popular despite civil unions flap

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 17 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Utahns still think highly of Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., despite a new poll showing his approval ratings have dipped a bit.

In a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll, 67 percent of Utahns said the governor's recent announcement supporting civil unions either made no difference or gave them a more favorable opinion of him. Thirty-two percent said their opinions of the governor were negatively impacted by his announcement last week.

Overall, however, with 80 percent of Utahns still approving of the job Huntsman is doing, the governor's "political bombshell" seems to have created minimal fallout away from Capitol Hill.

And it might have kicked off a run for the White House in 2012.

"I don't think he took as hard of a hit as people had anticipated," said pollster Dan Jones. "When 2012 rolls around, he'll be on the short list."

Just last month, Huntsman had a record-tying approval rating of 90 percent. While his approval rating has dropped 10 percentage points since then, 6 of those percentage points were from Utahns who said they "don't know" whether they approve or disapprove of his job performance.

The governor announced last week he supports civil unions for people living together in financially dependent relationships, including gay and lesbian couples. It's a position shared by most Utahns, according to the new statewide survey by Dan Jones & Associates.

Forty-seven percent of those polled supported civil unions compared to 42 percent who did not, according to the survey.

The poll of 313 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.6 percent.

"Gov. Huntsman is grateful to have the support of the majority of Utahns," said Lisa Roskelley, his spokeswoman. "This is his position on this one issue. It's been the focus of people for the past week, but it's not the governor's top priority."

Even so, the governor's support for civil unions and the Common Ground Initiative has created quite the hubbub among Republican lawmakers, who said civil unions would pave the way for the legalization of gay marriage.

Whether Huntsman has fallen out of favor with some conservative voters over civil unions is unclear. Even though 32 percent of those polled said their opinions of him were negatively impacted by his announcement, only 11 percent of Utahns said they disapprove of Huntsman's overall performance, the new poll found. One month ago, just 7 percent disapproved of the governor, but that difference is within the poll's margin of error.

While 41 percent of Utahns said the governor's position made no difference to them, Jones said Huntsman gained ground among the state's Democrats and independents.

It's a centrist shift that has politicos and national media penciling Huntsman onto the 2012 ballot. Already tapped by the Washington Post as "the next big thing," Huntsman is "presidential-quality timber," the Atlantic said this week.

Short of presidential push, Huntsman's experience as an ambassador to Singapore and relationship with China could position him for a federal job or a 2010 Senate run, Jones said. The governor, however, is not talking about his plans for the future.

"Gov. Huntsman is happy being governor and will continue to work to that end," Roskelley said. "We'll continue to work on important issues, like alcohol policy and health system reform."

E-mail: afalk@desnews.com

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