SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. made it clear Tuesday he won't challenge fellow Republican Sen. Mike Lee next year as Frank Luntz, a prominent GOP pollster visiting the state, called efforts to unseat Lee "foolish."
Huntsman was described by CNN's John King on Sunday as being recruited by some Utah business leaders and "national establishment players" to run in 2016 against Lee.
"I don't rule out another run, but not against Mike," Huntsman said in a text message to the Deseret News. "We don't always agree (who does) but he's very capable."
Huntsman said he has "no formal plans" to help Lee, a first-term senator elected after GOP delegates ousted longtime Republican Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010 in what was seen as the first major victory for the tea party movement.
"We'll see what happens after his announcement for re-election," Huntsman said.
The twice-elected governor, who stepped down in 2009 to serve as President Barack Obama's U.S. ambassador to China and then ran unsuccessfully for president in 2012, said that was "my total brain dump on the subject."
The Deseret News reported Monday that several political insiders and business leaders in Utah reportedly have spoken with Huntsman and indicated he had not ruled out getting in the race.
Huntsman did not respond to a request for comment until that story was published.
Lee, who appeared with Luntz at an Alta Club gathering of some 30 political and business leaders, including Attorney General Sean Reyes, said he didn't expect a challenge from Huntsman.
"I love the man. I loved working with him and wish him well in anything he chooses to do," said Lee, who served as Huntsman's general counsel when Huntsman was governor.
He said he would "love it" if Huntsman supported his re-election bid.
Luntz, who said his trip to Utah was sponsored by Lee, dismissed the reported attempts to find a more moderate Republican replacement for the state's junior senator.
"Foolish. Look, I am as pro-business as they come," Luntz said in an interview. "When you get someone with the power and the influence and the sway of Mike Lee, you don't abandon them."
He said Lee's position as head of the Senate steering committee that acts as a conservative caucus, along with key assignments held by the other five members of Utah's all-GOP congressional delegation, gives Utah outsized influence.
"Utah's got the most powerful delegation in Washington," Luntz said. "It's incredible that this is a small state with an oversized delegation. And the idea that you would want to actively undercut any of them would be so foolish."
Lee saw his support decline in the polls after helping to lead a battle two years ago against Obama's signature health care law that resulted in a federal government shutdown. Last fall, Lee had a 54 percent approval rating among Utah voters.
Boyd Matheson, a Lee senior adviser, said Tuesday that Lee is focused on advancing his agenda, which is aimed at helping Republicans appeal to the middle class, including boosting the tax credit for parents.
"We have always had the mantra that if he executes his strategy, it wouldn't matter who runs against him," Matheson said, describing that as "bringing the party together around a positive agenda for the country, so he's not worried about hypotheticals."
Luntz said Lee is offering a "positive, proactive, principled approach that you don't see in politics in Washington, D.C.," that could help the GOP recover after losing the White House in 2008 and again in 2012.
"The public didn't understand where Republicans stood. They understood what they were against, but they didn't understand what they were for," Luntz said, calling Lee's proposals "unprecedented for the GOP that has been the party of 'no.'"
At his Alta Club presentation, Luntz, known for his messaging skills on behalf of Republican politicians and his focus groups on Fox News and other networks, said it's not what leaders say that matters; it's what people hear.
He spoke of Utah's uniqueness as a state, calling it "kinder, gentler, more family-oriented, more neighborly and more decent to outsiders," as well as a role model for civility for the rest of the country.
Luntz said he has not gotten involved in the 2016 presidential race because he doesn't want to "go after" Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State and likely Democratic candidate.
Earlier, Luntz said in an interview he can't answer yet who will win the 2016 race to become the GOP nominee for president.36 comments on this story
"There are so many candidates with good messaging, with an impressive record of accomplishment," Luntz said, including Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
He said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has "the message that is actually closest to the American people," because it is more positive and less ideological, but Rubio may not run.
The party's 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, who briefly considered making a third run for president, should have made more of an effort to defend an "impressive business record" in the last campaign, Luntz said.