Mike Terry, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert couldn't come up with anything he learned from meeting with the nation's governors here in Utah over the past three days — but he said this state taught them plenty.
"I don't know that I had any special 'ah-ha' moment," Herbert told reporters at the conclusion of the three-day National Governors Association meeting Sunday, when asked what he'd picked up from hosting 32 of his counterparts.
"But I did come away with the fact that we had a lot of governors who are saying, 'I didn't realize how great Utah was,'" he said. "They had maybe a little misperception about Utah, and now having been here, they want to come back."
Herbert said bringing the NGA's annual meeting to Utah for the first time since 1947 "was an opportunity to show what we're doing, what we're capable of and lead by example."
He said other governors were especially interested in how Utah has weathered the nation's economic crisis.
"How come it is your economy is growing when the rest of the country is stagnating?" Herbert said they repeatedly asked.
The economy dominated the meeting, particularly the ongoing efforts in Washington, D.C., to reach a compromise on raising the country's debt ceiling so the United States does not default on its loans early next month.
At the opening news conference Friday, outgoing NGA Chairwoman Chris Gregoire, the governor of Washington, warned there could be dire economic consequences for the states, especially those still struggling to recover from the recession.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley said the topic was still being discussed by the governors during their final breakfast meeting Sunday. He said they reached broad consensus opposing the "reckless game being played" in Washington, D.C.
Herbert said the governors are concerned about the effects of the uncertainty surrounding the debt ceiling discussions.
"For governors, Republican and Democrat, we hope that they find a common-sense, pro-growth and job creation resolution to the gridlock we see in Washington," Herbert said. "Hopefully that will happen soon."
The new chairman of NGA, Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, announced his initiative over the next year will also be focused on the economy. He said summits will be held in Hartford, Conn.; Nashville, Seattle and Omaha to gather ideas about how states can grow their economies.
Herbert said he is not sure what role Utah will play in those summits, but suggested some of the state's business leaders could participate.
Before ending their meeting early Sunday afternoon, the governors heard New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman talk about his new book about America's role in the world, "That Used To Be Us."
"America is the tent pole that holds up the world," Friedman said. "If that tent pole buckles or fractures, your kids won't just grow up in a different America. They will grow up in a different world."
It wasn't all work for the governors during the stay in Salt Lake City. More than $1.5 million was raised privately by a Utah committee to host the meeting and pay for a number of activities.
Saturday night, many of the governors and their spouses took bobsled rides at Utah Olympic Park near Park City and watched an aerial show that featured a Herbert look-a-like.
First lady Janette Herbert said the audience was fooled into thinking it was Utah's governor doing a flip off the aerial jump into the practice pool, especially when Herbert joined them later dripping wet.
Herbert joked that he'd performed throughout the past three days, but "I've only used a stunt double once. Everything else was live and me in person. You can figure out which one was the stunt double."
His predecessor, GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman Jr., came to Utah to talk privately with some of the governors about possibly supporting his campaign.
Mississippi Gov. Hayley Barbour, who decided earlier this year he didn't have the "fire in the belly" to run for president in 2012, was among the governors who sat down with Huntsman.
"We had a nice visit," Barbour said. "I may not end up endorsing anybody at all. We'll see. I don't have any time pressure on me."
Asked about Huntsman's chances, he said this is "the most open nomination contest since I've been involved in the Republican Party."
Barbour said many in the party are "waiting for the field to fill out" before getting behind a candidate.
"We usually have a frontrunner, and the contest is about who can catch him," he said.
While former Utah Olympic leader Mitt Romney has been widely touted the frontrunner in his second bid for the White House, Barbour said that's not the case.
"This time we don't really have a frontrunner," he said. Not even Romney? "All I can do," Barbour said, "is tell you what I think."
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