SALT LAKE CITY — With Mitt Romney losing his race for the White House, another Republican with Utah ties may be on his way to Washington, D.C. to play a key role in President Barack Obama’s administration.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr., an unsuccessful candidate for this year’s GOP presidential nomination, is being mentioned as a possible pick to replace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she steps down at the start of Obama’s second term.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that while U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry are likely high on Obama’s list, unnamed officials “are pointing to Jon Huntsman,” who served as the Democratic president’s U.S. ambassador to China.
The wire service said Huntsman continues to be widely respected in the administration, despite his attempt to unseat Obama. Naming Huntsman to another top post would allow the president to claim bipartisanship while tapping his extensive knowledge of China.
Huntsman told KSL-TV that his future is focused on his family and his work, which includes serving as distinguished fellow at a prominent Washington think tank and as chairman of the Huntsman Cancer Institute as well as giving speeches around the country.
He described what’s ahead for him as “managing a lot of projects that I find absolutely fun, interesting and satisfying.” After returning from China, Huntsman bought a family home in Washington and also a condominium in downtown Salt Lake City.
The speculation Huntsman could be asked a second time to serve in the Obama administration caught many political observers off guard.
“Oh, wow. Wow. Really?” said Quin Monson, head of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. “That would be very surprising.”
Monson said it would seem unlikely Huntsman would be brought back into a Democratic administration after running against President Obama.
“On the other hand, he’s signaling he’s had it with the Republican Party. Going back for another round seems to make his transition complete,” Monson said, referring to Huntsman’s complaints about the direction the GOP is headed.
If Huntsman is serious about pursuing the post, Monson said that’s likely a sign he’s no longer eyeing another presidential bid, in 2016, at least not as a Republican. Huntsman has talked about the need for a new, third political party to emerge.
New Hampshire politician Peter Spaulding, a top adviser to Huntsman’s short-lived presidential campaign, agreed that re-joining the Obama administration all but ends Huntsman’s political career as a Republican.
Spaulding, who said he agrees with Huntsman’s assessment that the GOP has moved too far to the right, wants to see him take on the party rather than leave.
“I do think he has a future in the party and I think the party hopefully has learned it has got to moderate its positions,” Spaulding said. “I would like to see him be one of the Republicans who leads those efforts.”
Spaulding, a county commissioner, said he plans to support Huntsman if he makes another run for the presidency and said he’d have a good chance of doing better.
Huntsman dropped out of the presidential race earlier this year after skipping the Iowa caucus vote and finishing a disappointing third in the New Hampshire primary.
Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor, was less enthusiastic about Huntsman’s prospects.
“He burned fewer bridges with Obama than he did with the Republican Party. I would be surprised if Jon Huntsman has any kind of future in national Republican Party politics,” Scala said.
Especially, he said, since there are other moderate Republicans like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie poised to jump into the 2016 race and take the party in a different direction.
“He might as well go work for Obama again. I don’t think he could damage his reputation that much more than he has already done,” Scala said.
Another option for Huntsman would be running for office in Utah, possibly for the Senate seat now held by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. But Monson said that would be a tough race for Huntsman because of his moderate politics.
“I don’t’ know that he would get elected in Utah again as a Republican,” Monson said, suggesting Huntsman might have better luck as a Democrat. “I think his move ideologically to the center has helped his chances on the national stage” but not with the GOP in Utah.
Huntsman avoided directly attacking the GOP in his interview and said he cares more about the future of the country than the future of the Republican Party.
“It’s a time when people just want to know they’re going to be OK,” he said. “Sometimes party politics can run counter to the reassurance that people are looking for, so it’s a time when we need to start thinking about what’s right for the country most of all. And then I think party politics will follow.”
Contributing: John Daley