Tom Smart, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. appears to be getting closer to making another bid for the White House in 2016 with the recent launch of a new political action committee, Red Rock.
Formed in late May in Utah, the leadership PAC will allow Huntsman to raise money he can use to build support for a possible campaign by traveling the country to meet with fellow Republicans, as well as make financial donations to candidates.
In a fundraising email sent out last week, Huntsman announced Red Rock is already backing Gabriel Gomez, the Republican fighting an uphill battle to win Secretary of State John Kerry's former Senate seat in Massachusetts.
The email, which never refers to political party, describes the PAC "as an avenue to support strong candidates who are running to change the current national political dynamic and deliver solutions for Americans."
However, Red Rock spokesman Joe Kildea said while Huntsman personally gave money to Gomez's campaign, the PAC has not made any contributions to candidates.
There are no contributions to Red Rock reported to the state elections office. Although Utah has no limit on political contributions, money received must be reported within 30 days of receipt.
Huntsman, who served as U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama before his short-lived run for the GOP nomination in 2012, continues to say it's much too soon to decide whether to make another try for the presidency.
Promising to talk about issues "that really matter," Huntsman told Politico recently that if those issues "hit a wall, then you don't have a future. If they resonate with people, then naturally, you'll be talked about."
It's not clear how much support Huntsman can expect. He has clashed with many in his party on a number of issues, including the need to address climate change, and is playing a leadership role in No Labels, a group promoting nonpartisanship.
"The first time he ran, his candidacy never moved the needle at all. He never generated any enthusiasm," said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "What's different this time?"
Wilson said Huntsman is seen as having "burned his bridges with conservatives," the Republicans most likely to be focused on presidential politics this far out from the election.
Huntsman's endorsement of Gomez, viewed as the "sort of Republican candidate many of the primary, the base voters, will hold their nose at," he said, isn't the way to appeal to conservatives.
"Going around the country and supporting the Gabriel Gomezes of the world is really just doubling down on the same sort of moderate positioning that didn't work out last time for Huntsman," Wilson said.
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle, active in GOP politics, said the Red Rock PAC may be a sign Huntsman is taking a more traditional route to a possible run.
Last election, Huntsman jumped into the presidential race soon after returning from Beijing, without building the kind of grass-roots support that comes from establishing relationships early on with party leaders in key voting states like Iowa.
"He's getting off to an earlier start, but he still has a lot of work to do," Hagle said, especially in Iowa where he did not compete in the state's first in the nation caucus. "It's hard not to learn from your mistakes."
Four years ago, supporters of a Huntsman presidential run formed R-PAC in Utah, which ultimately raised more than $2 million, much of it from Huntsman's wealthy family and individuals connected to Huntsman Corp.
Red Rock, whose treasurer is Huntsman's former chief of staff in Utah and China, Neil Ashdown, will not have to file a financial disclosure statement with the state until the end of August.
Kildea said the PAC is based in Utah because of Huntsman's "service as governor and longtime ties, and we plan on supporting candidates focused on problem solving in Utah and across the county."
Kildea said other Red Rock PACs may be formed in other states and at the federal level "when and if the need arises."
Mitt Romney utilized state and federal leadership PACs before both his 2008 and 2012 presidential races. Although Romney counted heavily on Utahns to support his leadership PACs, none were based in Utah.
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