Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., whose support for civil unions is again attracting national attention, said Thursday he hasn't seen a controversial new commercial from an anti-gay marriage group and hasn't paid attention to their campaign.
"I haven't given it a second's thought. My concern is with the economy of this state, heath-care reform, energy," Huntsman said during his monthly press conference on KUED Channel 7 when asked about "The Gathering Storm" commercial sponsored by the National Organization for Marriage.
The governor declined to comment after the taping about the commercial's suggestion that advocates of gay rights pose an ominous threat.
"It's a free country," he told reporters.
Huntsman was also asked about the involvement of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the organization that produced the commercial. Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland recently stepped down from the organization's board and was replaced by author and Mormon Times columnist Orson Scott Card.
"Everybody gets to speak out on issues they feel strongly about," said Huntsman, a Mormon. "It's the American way. I don't begrudge anybody their point of view."
The commercial was the focus of a recent New York Times column by Frank Rich about the shift in sentiment among conservatives towards same-sex marriage. The column featured comments from Huntsman, a Republican, on his support for civil unions.
When asked about his stand on civil unions, Huntsman said he "gives an answer. That doesn't make me an expert in the field nor does it mean I spend all of my waking hours thinking about this particular issue."
The governor said he agreed with Rich's premise that most Americans are less concerned with gay rights issues. "In today's environment, people expect their elected officials to focus first and foremost on the more immediate needs out there — the bread-and-butter issues" such as the economy.
Huntsman said his support for civil unions, "to my mind and in the minds of a lot of Utahns equates to equal rights for all people. I stand by that and I'll continue to stand by that."
His position, he said, "doesn't equate to support for gay marriage. It's for civil unions. And I think that's a debate for our state to have and probably every other state in America."
He said he expects the discussion to continue on extending benefits such as hospital visitation rights to gay and other non-traditional couples. Those issues were part of the "Common Ground" package of bills that failed to pass last session.
"It's not that it's starting now. We've had this conversation for some time," said the governor, who met with gay rights advocates earlier this week. "Where it goes, I'm not quite sure."
In recent months, Huntsman has been touted in the national media as a potential GOP candidate for president in 2012. He deflected questions Thursday about whether he's had discussions about what that campaign would entail.
"This is a good example where the Republican Party needs to let a thousand flowers bloom and get all the different issues out there, the different perspectives," the governor said, to "see where that takes us."
Huntsman has been portrayed in the national media as a leader among Republicans who believe the party should be more moderate on gay rights and other issues.
But he said Thursday the GOP "isn't moving anywhere right now. The party is going through a recasting of itself that may take a few years."
The governor did make a point of telling reporters after the taping that the Republican rank-and-file have not always appreciated actions by GOP politicians that are later seen as achievements, such as President Ronald Reagan meeting with his Russian counterpart during the Cold War.