SALT LAKE CITY — Former Secretary of State James Baker, the leader of three GOP presidents' campaigns for the White House, said Monday he'll support whoever becomes the party's 2012 presidential nominee.
"I like anybody we nominate," Baker said. "We've got a number of good candidates out there. I'm not going to participate in the primary. I haven't' participated in a primary since I stopped running campaigns."
Baker, the keynote speaker at Sen. Orrin Hatch's annual conference for seniors held Monday at the Little America Hotel, told reporters Mitt Romney "has excellent private sector business credentials. He has run a business. He's been out there in the private sector."
He also offered some praise for the other Republican in the presidential race with Utah ties, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
"I like Gov. Huntsman very much," Baker said. "He worked for us, for me, when I was chief of staff" to then-President Ronald Reagan. Huntsman was a staff assistant.
"He did, as I understand it, a fine job as governor of Utah. I think he is — I know he is — a fine individual," Baker said of Huntsman.
Baker, a Houston native, brought up another candidate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry. After a late start, Perry is now leading the longtime frontrunner, Romney, in some polls.
"There are other candidates out there. My home state governor, Perry from Texas, is running," he said. "There will undoubtedly be other candidates. I'm going to support the Republican nominee for president."
Baker, who served key roles in three GOP administrations between 1975 and 1993, declined to say whether he believes the party's eventual nominee will be backed by the conservative tea party movement or be more moderate.
"I'm not one who thinks the tea party is a problem for the Republican Party as long as a they don't become a third party," he said. "I think they give the Republican Party energy and enthusiasm, as long as they support the Republican nominee."
He said if Reagan were still alive, "he'd probably be out there leading the charge" for the tea party. The "Gipper," Baker said, believed the country was overspending.
The man who ran a total of five presidential campaigns for Reagan and for former Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush said he believes the GOP can retake the White House next year.
"It's very important that we change the direction of this country. We are in really bad shape," Baker said. "I think we have an extraordinarily good shot at the White House. The president's approval ratings are sliding."
But, he said President Barack Obama is a good campaigner who will be able to significantly outspend the Republican Party's pick for president with an unprecedented $1 billion warchest.
Baker repeatedly urged the hundreds of Utah seniors gathered for the conference to re-elect Hatch to a seventh term in the U.S. Senate, calling Hatch "one of the Republican Party's finest statesmen" and one of Reagan's most loyal supporters.
With both the White House and the control of the U.S. Senate up for grabs in 2012, Baker told the elderly crowd the upcoming election "may be the most important one in our lifetime."
During his speech, Baker told the audience the country must "diffuse the ticking debt bomb" that threatens the nation.
He said that means reforming entitlement programs, possibility raising the age for Social Security and phasing in changes to Medicare, so today's older Americans would not be affected.
"We are in fact today totally broke," Baker told the audience. But he also said he believes talk of America being in decline "is exaggerated" because it is still the most powerful country in the world.
The former secretary of state under the first President Bush also said China is not the threat that some see. China cannot maintain its current fast-paced economic growth, Baker said, and its military is "far, far behind us."
America's foreign policy, he said, needs to limit the nation's involvement in what he called "wars of choice" because those waste resources and erode support for needed military activities.
It may take until after the next election to begin tackling some of nation's problems, Baker acknowledged. "Washington has become a place where some consider compromise a dirty word," he said. "It's not. It's the way you get things done."
Dean Larsen, one of the attendees at the "New Visions on Aging" conference, said it's that friction that bothers him. "What does cause anxiety is all this craziness in Washington, with all of this excess spending," Larson said.
Contributing: Richard Piatt