SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. says he's not planning another run for president in 2016 but at the same time acknowledges he's "learned not to dismiss anything outright" when it comes to public service.
The 2012 Republican presidential candidate told the Deseret News Friday he has no staff or organization in place for a second White House bid and is "not anticipating any run."
Still, Huntsman, who stepped down as governor in 2009 after being elected to a second term to serve as U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama, would not rule out another elected or appointed office.
"I've always been open to serving my country," he said. "You don't know what form or fashion that takes. And I've never been able to predict that in the past, so it would be disingenuous of me to say that, all of a sudden, you're closing off your sense, your spirit of public service. I won't do that."
Huntsman said he's satisfied working to influence public policy from outside of elected office, as he's doing now as chairman of the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank, and with No Labels, a group promoting nonpartisanship.
"I'm a public servant. I've had the greatest career in the world, and if it ended right where it is, I would die the happiest man on earth. If there's more to it beyond that, terrific," he said.
Huntsman sounded somewhat frustrated with the continued speculation about his political future.
"You can't have a conversation today on anything if you've ever been involved in politics without being accused of being a candidate or having ulterior motives," he said. "I have none."
Early last month, Huntsman made headlines by telling longtime talk show host Larry King he was "open" to running again for president. A little more than two weeks later, he told the Wall Street Journal he has "set no sight on it at all."
The differences in those statements, Huntsman said, should be seen as "proof positive that I'm not drawing from soundbites and prepared statements" that would come from a would-be campaign.
He said he meant he was open to being "in a position where you could step up and do something to serve your county. The answer is, 'Of course.' That's how I've always lived my life."
That may not apply to the presidency, at least not in the upcoming election.
"Even if the answer was, 'Sure, we're going to run in 2016,' there isn't a pathway for a candidate like me," Huntsman said. "The money today is in division, it's in polarization, it's in partisanship, and I don't do any of the above."
His actions suggest he's not a serious contender for 2016, political observers said. Instead, they see him as keeping his name in the news as a possible candidate for 2016 to remain relevant in national politics.
"The more ambiguous or quote-unquote 'open' he is to running again, the more he'll get media coverage," University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said. "It's a game you play to keep your name in front of people."
Scala said Huntsman is taking advantage of a lull in the presidential campaign cycle.
"It's slow. No one's announced yet. People are willing to write about just about anybody running for president," he said.
But those candidates who'll swing into high gear after the 2014 midterm elections are over are already raising money and helping candidates in early voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.
"You come in and you do your favors for people," University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said.
Even 2012 GOP nominee Mitt Romney is campaigning for candidates in Iowa despite saying "no" to a third presidential run.
Hagle said some political figures who go back and forth in the media about getting in a race are just seeking attention. That's true for real estate mogul Donald Trump, who has never actually run, but not necessarily Huntsman, Hagle said.
"It is a tough decision, even for someone who's done it before," Hagle said of running. "If you're a little more honest, a little open and just telling people what you feel at a particular time, it can come across as a little indecisive."
Utah advertising executive Tom Love, a longtime friend of Huntsman, said he doesn't see Huntsman making conflicting statements about the 2016 race as a strategy to get people to pay attention to him.
"I don't see Jon as manipulative. He speaks from the gut," Love said.
He said he believes Huntsman is being genuine.
"I would say he's telling the truth as he sees it at the time," Love said.
Huntsman said he's not playing politics with the 2016 race, which he described as attempting "to grandstand, to try and take advantage of some opening. I just don't do that."
Instead, Huntsman said, he is raising issues such as the influence of money in the political process and a presidential primary process he believes hurts candidates by starting in largely conservative states.
"I'm not out there talking as a candidate," he said. "I'm out there talking about things that candidates won't talk about because they can't, like money and politics, and how it is destroying the country."
Huntsman also said he worries about the trivialization of politics in the United States.
"Every year we fall a little bit farther behind because we focus on the small stuff, and trivial stuff, and the theatrical stuff that means nothing to our long-term well-being," he said.
That includes paying too much attention to who's in and who's out in the presidential race, Huntsman said, "speculating on the horse race. That's all people want to write about — the horse race."
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