Jon Huntsman Jr. ready to hit the campaign trail for Mitt Romney, calling him 'best of the options we have'

Published: Tuesday, May 1 2012 8:30 p.m. MDT

Jon Huntsman Jr., former Utah governor and GOP presidential candidate, talks during an interview Tuesday, May 1, 2012, at Huntsman Corp. headquarters in Salt Lake City.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said Tuesday he's ready to hit the campaign trail for his one-time rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Mitt Romney.

But in a wide-ranging interview with the Deseret News, Huntsman at times offered only lukewarm support for the fellow Mormon who beat him out for the job of running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"I see him as the best of the options we have available," Huntsman said of Romney. When asked about the strength of his support, Huntsman said he saw his comment "as a ringing endorsement."

Romney, he said again, is "the best we have out there. We have a choice at the end of the day and he's my choice. I think he's the best equipped by far to deal with the economic issues and challenges that confront us."

Later, Huntsman talked about the need for the Republican Party to embrace "big ideas that speak to solutions" in order to survive. "You can't be small and you can't be fearful. You've got to be hopeful," he said.

But asked if the party was headed in that direction given his description of its apparent nominee, Huntsman shrugged. "Who knows? Once you give the newly elected president the reins of power, people rise to the occasion," he said.

Still, Huntsman said, Romney has earned the right to represent the GOP on the November ballot because he emerged victorious from a "bruising, tortuous primary process" as a better candidate than he was in 2008.

"He's grown a lot, he's learned a lot. He's probably better prepared to lead," Huntsman said. He said voters are looking for the executive skills Romney showed as head of the Olympics and as governor of Massachusetts.

"You don't have to be a perfect campaigner," Huntsman said. "He managed a state, he turned around the Olympics here. He's got the ability to manage and to be an executive."

Huntsman, who served as U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama, the Democratic choice on the November ballot, was less than complimentary about his former boss.

Obama, he said, "had soaring and compelling rhetoric that really captivated a good part of the country" as a candidate, but once elected didn't have the experience needed to be an effective policy-maker.

"That's where you would have a Gov. Romney step up, who would be more familiar with how to use the levers of power and get things done," Huntsman said. "When he was in a governing environment, he excelled."

Huntsman discounted talk of bad blood between him and Romney that reportedly started over the Olympic job and continued on the campaign trail.

Even his initial endorsement of Romney was seen as less than enthusiastic, especially after his daughter said in an interview that her father would not serve as a surrogate for Romney on the campaign trail.

"I think it's the media that's created more drama than there is. The fact of the matter is, I don't know Gov. Romney well," Huntsman said. "I respect him. And I like the man. I think he has a first-rate family."

The last time the pair talked, Huntsman said, was the January day he dropped out of the presidential race and offered his support to Romney. He said he's ready to help Romney get elected.

"I'm not a surrogate because I haven't been asked to be a surrogate. If they want help, I'd be happy to help, absolutely," Huntsman said, adding that he understands there might not be a role for him.

"You want to be very respectful," Huntsman said. "And if they need your help, they know where to find you."

Huntsman, who now splits his time between his family's home in Washington, D.C. and a condo in the new City Creek development in downtown Salt Lake City, said he's made no decisions about his own political future.

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