SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns may be fascinated with Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. saying it's "tough to define" whether he's a member of the Mormon church, but the rest of the country doesn't seem to be paying much attention.
The would-be GOP presidential candidate appeared to distance himself from his faith in a new Time magazine profile posted online Thursday, describing himself as proud of his Mormon roots, but more spiritual than religious.
Asked directly if he was still a member of the church Huntsman answered, "That's tough to define. There are varying degrees. I come from a long line of saloon keepers and proselytizes, and I draw from both sides."
Tom Love, president of the Salt Lake-based Love Communications advertising agency and a longtime friend of Huntsman, said it's no surprise Utahns are reacting.
"Clearly, the reason it's important here is the majority in the state of Utah are Mormon, and they want to hear him say, 'I'm one of you. I'm like you,''' Love said.
Huntsman's comments have attracted plenty of attention here, as evidenced by stories on KSL.com that had generated well over 100,000 page views by Friday afternoon — at least 20 times the typical number of hits — and nearly as many page views on deseretnews.com.
And more than 7,500 votes had been cast in an unscientific online KSL.com poll, with nearly three-quarters of the respondents saying they disagreed with the way Huntsman answered the question about his LDS faith.
Nationally, it's a different story.
Friday, The Hill's campaign blog, Ballot Box, mentioned Huntsman's interview in a roundup of the 2012 race but focused on what appears to be a June deadline for making up his mind about running.
Huntsman, who now makes his home in Washington, D.C., told the magazine he was thinking about a White House bid four years from now, "but the political marketplace moved."
He pointed out, "If there was zero interest, we wouldn't be sitting here. We're encouraged by the level of interest and will let the rest of the month play out."
RealClearPolitics.com talked about a switch in Huntsman's position on dealing with climate change reported by Time. As governor, Huntsman supported an initiative calling for a regional cap and trade program to control carbon emissions.
Now, he's joined other Republicans in scrapping support for such a program. "It hasn't worked," Huntsman told Time. "And our economy's in a different place than five years ago." Until the economy recovers, he said, "this isn't the moment."
The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza came closer, offering a quick video analysis in Friday's online Fast Fix of what he calls "The Mormon Primary" between Huntsman and the other Mormon Republican expected to enter the race, Mitt Romney.
"It's not yet clear the GOP field is big enough for one Mormon, let alone two," Cillizza said, citing national polls that show many voters view Mormonism as outside the mainstream.
"Knowing this, neither Romney nor Huntsman is likely to put their religion on display for voters. But neither man will back away from their beliefs, either," he said, without referencing the Time piece or the questions it raised.
An exception was Joanna Brooks, a Mormon religious scholar from California whose Religious Dispatches blog asked, "Why is Huntsman's Mormonism 'Tough to Define?''' noting that his comments drew heavy criticism from "orthodox Mormons."
Brooks wondered, "In dodging the question of Mormon identity, was Huntsman acting the part of the slippery and crowd-pleasing politician? Or was he trying to negotiate the often difficult path of the other-than-orthodox Mormon?"
Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa who closely follows presidential politics, said Huntsman's name has yet to surface in the state that traditionally hosts the nation's first presidential vote.
"It didn't sound like a clear answer to me. I would think if other Iowa voters read the same thing, they'd ask, 'Is he or isn't he?'" Hagle said after hearing of Huntsman's comments. "They don't really care, but they want a clear answer, one way or the other."
Love said the lack of attention to Huntsman's comments may be due to his not being well-known outside of Utah despite having just finished a tour as U.S. ambassador to China.
But should Huntsman jump into the race, he'll have to be ready with an answer to whether he remains a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"He's not going to be able to straddle that fence forever," Love said. "I think he'll have to give a yes or no answer at some point."84 comments on this story
Tim Miller, a spokesman for what's been described as Huntsman's campaign-in-waiting, said in a statement Thursday that Huntsman "remains a member of the church and proud to be part of the fabric of a large, vibrant faith."
Love said he believes Huntsman answered the questioned posed by Time magazine honestly.
"I think this is who he is and what he believes," Love said. "I think he is a deeply spiritual person, but apparently he is not affiliating with a specific religion at this time."