SALT LAKE CITY – More than twice as many Utahns would vote for Mitt Romney over Jon Huntsman Jr. in a GOP presidential primary, according to a new Deseret News/KSL poll.
Dan Jones & Associates found that 56 percent of Utahns would cast their ballot for Romney, while just 26 percent would choose Huntsman in a race between the two.
The poll, conducted Feb. 8-10, of 496 residents statewide, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percent.
"It could be a damaging poll for Huntsman, at least in the short term," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime Romney supporter who is also close to Huntsman.
"To see the place that knows him best is going for Romney could have some impact," Jowers said, at a time when the public is just beginning to hear about the possibility of a Huntsman run.
The numbers don't look promising for Huntsman nationally, said Matthew Wilson, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who specializes in religion and politics.
"I would say this is really bad news for him if he's running that far behind Romney in Utah, where name recognition is not a disadvantage," Wilson said. "If he can't hold up to Romney even in Utah, it's hard to see where he could surpass him."
While no GOP candidates are officially in the race, Romney is seen as a leading contender for the party's nomination, after his strong showing in the last election and his continued national presence.
The former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City won the 2008 Utah Republican presidential primary with an unprecedented 90 percent of the vote.
Huntsman, who resigned as governor to become U.S. ambassador to China, submitted his resignation effective April 30 amid speculation he would challenge his boss, President Barack Obama, in 2012.
What's seemingly been attracting the most attention about a Huntsman run in the national press is that it could mean there would be two Mormon candidates competing for the Republican nomination.
Pollster Dan Jones said that may be costing Huntsman support in Utah, among voters who remember the sometimes uncomfortable focus on Romney's faith during the 2008 race.
"I think there are those who feel that having two Mormons will make the issue of religion much more predominant than it ought to be," Jones said. "They might stop each other from getting the nomination."
Jones, too, was surprised at the size of the gap between the pair. He said Huntsman, who has been out of the country since 2009, will have to reacquaint himself with voters here.
Some, however, appear to remember all too well Huntsman's controversial stands, including supporting civil unions, a route to citizenship for illegal immigrants and climate change initiatives — all of which went against the conservative grain of many Utahns.
The poll found that his support falls even lower among Republican respondents, dropping to just 15 percent compared to 72 percent for Romney. Utah's GOP primaries are closed to non-Republicans.
"Wow," said Sen. John Valentine, R-Orem, the co-chairman of Romney's 2008 campaign in Utah. "That probably goes to some of the stands Gov. Huntsman took."
Still, Valentine said it's way too soon to write Huntsman off as a candidate. "He's starting down. The data shows that. But not a viable candidate? I don't think the data shows that."
State Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland said having Huntsman on the ballot could lure Democratic and unaffiliated votes.
"There is a lot more concern about a Huntsman candidacy because it's harder for us to draw a distinction," Holland said. "He's got a stronger likability and approval rating with our target voters."
Holland said the party's own polling found Democrats and unaffiliated voters see Huntsman as "courageous," especially for endorsing the GOP's eventual nominee in 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain, over Romney.
That image, Holland said, also could help Huntsman deal better with challenges to his religion from evangelical Republicans who don't believe members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are Christians.
"They can't do that to Huntsman near as easily," Holland said. "He's established a record of being more independent and not a panderer."
While Romney answered many questions about his beliefs during his last presidential bid, Huntsman — the grandson of the late LDS Church apostle David B. Haight — has already said he's not "overly religious" and expressed interest in a number of faiths.
There was little support in the poll for two Republicans who do have the backing of evangelical voters, former GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
In a Utah GOP primary with Romney and Huntsman, Palin would get 7 percent of the vote, according to the poll, while Huckabee would receive 4 percent.