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Gov. Gary Herbert says GOP guvs can't stop talking presidential politics

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 29 2011 7:06 p.m. MST

ORLANDO, Fla. — The presidential race is what everyone wants to talk about at the Republican Governors Association conference, Gov. Gary Herbert said Tuesday.

But he said no candidate in the crowded GOP field has emerged yet as the favorite among the nation's Republican governors, who are meeting through Friday in the Florida resort city.

"The consensus seems to be there's just a lot of moving parts," Herbert said in a telephone interview. "The feeling is generally it's a wide-open race. Nobody has a lock on it."

The flux the race is in is "the major buzz out there," the governor said, although the GOP leaders are counting on their party to come up with a candidate who'll defeat President Barack Obama next year.

"You feel the optimism. How much energy that translates into is hard to assess, but there's clearly an upbeat mood about the chance to take back the White House," he said.

Herbert is taking the opportunity to tout the two GOP presidential candidates with Utah ties — former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and former 2002 Winter Olympics head Mitt Romney, seen as the frontrunner in the race.

"People know I know them both, so they ask my thoughts," the governor said. "There's no downside to this for Utah. … Huntsman is our favorite son, and Romney is our favorite adopted son."

Herbert said he's been describing Huntsman's diplomatic skills and understanding of world affairs, as well as the efforts made to boost Utah's economy during the Huntsman/Herbert administration.

"I think he's seen as a serious candidate. I think people look at him as a man who's got intellectual capabilities," Herbert said of Huntsman, who is trailing in the polls. "For some, the puzzlement is why is what he's selling not being purchased. He's not getting much traction."

Herbert said there are likely a lot of reasons Huntsman is struggling, including serving as Obama's U.S. ambassador to China. Some, he said, wrongly believe that it "seems like he went to the dark side and now he's coming back."

Jumping into the race so soon after resigning as ambassador to China likely hurt Huntsman, too, Herbert said, suggesting his predecessor didn't have time to build a campaign with "the firepower he needed to have."

The other GOP governors see Huntsman as a capable and qualified candidate, he said.

"For most governors, timing is everything. Your organization structure counts," Herbert said.

So far, Herbert has declined to choose between Huntsman and Romney, even though he backed Romney in 2008. But he said he will endorse one over the other.

"I've just got to decide when," the governor said. "It's just one of those things. I am loyal. Both are good friends of mine."

The news Tuesday that Herman Cain is reassessing his run in light of new allegations and Newt Gingrich's sudden rise in the polls were part of the discussion about the presidential race, too.

And the Republican governors expected to see a better showing from one of their own, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Herbert said.

"A lot have been, I think, a little surprised that Rick Perry hasn't done better than he's done," he said. "There's a recognition he's stumbled a little bit in his debate performance."

Herbert said it's been tough season for GOP candidates.

"There's nobody that's perfect. Everybody's looking for the perfect guy, and that person — he or she — doesn't seem to exist," he said. "Maybe they'll end up coalescing around Mitt when they see there's nobody better."

This story was reported from Salt Lake City.

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com

Twitter: dnewspolitics

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