Huntsman back in Utah this week for son's graduation

Published: Monday, May 23 2011 2:00 p.m. MDT

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a likely GOP presidential candidate, will leave the campaign trail to return to Utah later this week to attend his son's high school graduation.

So far, the low-key visit does not include any public appearances. Huntsman will also give a speech on U.S.-China relations Friday at the members-only Alta Club, followed by a reception sponsored by Zions Bank, then he'll have lunch with Gov. Gary Herbert at the Governor's Mansion on Sunday.

State Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright said he's been contacted by Huntsman's staff about setting up a brief meeting with GOP leaders while he's here. "We just appreciate him reaching out," Wright said.

But Utah Republicans aren't sold on a Huntsman presidential bid in 2012. While Huntsman was a popular governor, polls have shown in a Utah GOP primary, he would trail far behind the other Mormon with local ties eying the White House, former Salt Lake Olympic boss Mitt Romney.

Yet to be seen is the impact in Utah of Huntsman's recent statements about his membership in the LDS Church being "tough to define," as well as his decisions to live in Washington, D.C., following his time as U.S. ambassador to China and to consider Florida as a home base for his campaign.

"I think people appreciate honesty, so I think he'll be well-received," Wright said.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank isn't so sure.

"For people who are political insiders, who are politically savvy, they understand what he's doing," Burbank said. "If you're going to play the game at that level, it's quite difficult to campaign from Utah," especially if Romney has the state locked up.

He said it's natural that many Utahns wonder about the choices Huntsman is making.

"I think there are mixed reactions," Burbank said. "If you look at the hearts and minds of Utahns, they're much more with Romney."

Pollster Dan Jones said there "will be those who are unhappy" with Huntsman right now, but he could become a formidable candidate, even in Utah.

He's already gaining momentum nationally. Time magazine's Mark Halperin on Friday praised the potential he said Huntsman has already shown on a range of issues and predicted, "If he lives up to that, I think he'll be the next president of the United States" on MSNBC.

Huntsman, who spent time Monday with former President George H.W. Bush in Kennebunkport, Maine, after a five-day swing through New Hampshire, is expected to be in Salt Lake City on Thursday night.

That's when he's scheduled to attend the baccalaureate mass at the Cathedral of the Madeleine for his son Will's graduation from Judge Memorial High School. Huntsman will also attend Will's commencement ceremony at Abravanel Hall on Sunday afternoon.

Also on Sunday, a small, private lunch is scheduled at the Governor's Mansion for the unveiling of Huntsman's official gubernatorial portrait that will hang in the Capitol.

It will be the only opportunity Huntsman will have during his visit to meet with Gov. Gary Herbert, who had been his lieutenant governor until Huntsman resigned in August 2009 to become U.S. ambassador to China.

"Gov. Herbert will host a simple, low-key, friendly event to unveil former Gov. Huntsman's portrait," Herbert's spokeswoman, Ally Isom, said. "No business. No politics."

Herbert and Huntsman split over which GOP candidate to support in the 2008 presidential race — Huntsman going with the eventual nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, and Herbert backed Romney.

This time, Herbert is being careful not to state a preference when asked about Utah's two potential favorite-son candidates.

"Huntsman and Romney are good friends of mine," Herbert said during last week's KUED Ch. 7 news conference. He said he has encouraged Romney to run again while praising Huntsman's "keen intellect." Both men, he said, are "very talented people."

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