Governor Huntsman causing national, local stir

'08 strategist sees Utahn as '12 candidate

Published: Wednesday, May 6 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

Now, it's President Barack Obama's former campaign manager who's pitching Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. as a potential GOP challenger for the White House in 2012.

David Plouffe is a "wee bit queasy" about the prospect of a Huntsman candidacy, according to U.S. News Weekly's "Washington Whispers" column first posted on the digital news magazine's subscriber-only Web site last Friday.

"I think the one person in that party who might be a potential presidential candidate is Gov. Jon Huntsman of Utah," Plouffe is quoted as saying. "I think he's really out there speaking a lot of truth about the direction of the party."

Of course, the column also points out that there's no potential Republican opponent that makes the longtime Democratic Party strategist "shake in his shoes." But, Plouffe notes, "four years ago, Sen. Barack Obama wasn't even in the conversation, so it may very well be someone that none of us are really talking about right now."

Plouffe's focus on Huntsman impressed Todd Weiler, Utah State Republican Party vice chairman.

"You can always question the sincerity and the motivation for a statement like that, but my gut reaction would be that it was honest," Weiler said. "They see Huntsman as an attractive candidate who is moving toward the middle and has a legitimate resume."

Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said Huntsman "is getting the rewards of sticking his neck out on issues," including support for gay rights and addressing climate change — in one of the nation's reddest and most conservative states.

"Regardless of whether Plouffe was being sincere, the demographics and trends certainly show the Republican Party has to change lanes a little bit, and Huntsman has become the leading voice of reform," said Jowers, who was appointed by Huntsman to head a commission on boosting voter turnout in Utah.

Huntsman's stands have been attracting the attention of The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and other national media for some time. His support for civil unions led to a Michigan GOP group canceling his appearance last week.

The swing through Michigan was just the latest political trip by Huntsman to a key Republican primary state. The governor, though, won't say what his political plans are, beyond not seeking a third term as governor.

"The governor is not looking to make anyone queasy," Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said. "He's just working on building the party."

Huntsman is not the only possible presidential candidate with Utah ties. Former Salt Lake City Olympic leader Mitt Romney is widely viewed as a leading contender for the GOP nomination in four years, after his second-place finish for the party nod in 2008. Romney, who like Huntsman is a Mormon, won Utah's Republican primary last year with a whopping 90 percent of the vote.

Huntsman did not back Romney's presidential bid, instead supporting the party's eventual nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain. Now McCain and his team appear to be returning the favor.

While Huntsman has yet to put together any sort of visible campaign structure, he has met with pollster and strategist Frank Luntz and has scheduled a telephone call with him Tuesday.

The governor also is getting advice from John Weaver, a former chief strategist to McCain with a colorful history. After serving as McCain's political director in the 2000 race, Weaver switched to the Democratic Party, then back to the GOP for McCain's 2008 run.

According to Atlantic Online, it was Weaver who helped recruit Huntsman to the McCain camp. And although Weaver left McCain's campaign during an upheaval in mid-2007, he helped McCain beat Romney in Florida by securing Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's endorsement.

Roskelley said Weaver and Huntsman don't have a formal relationship.

"The governor doesn't have any contracts and isn't paying anyone to consult or anything like that," she said. "Certainly, they talk politics. He's a longtime friend, but he's not hired as a consultant."

Huntsman has been left out of a new GOP organization created to help redefine the party, the National Council for a New America. Romney, however, is playing a big role in the new organization, suggesting he has the backing of the party faithful.

"That's one of the key questions, will Gov. Huntsman be a man too ahead of the times for the Republican Party. If so, he'll remain a bit of a voice in the wilderness," Jowers said. "I think Huntsman feels whether he's proven right by 2012 or 2016, he's on the right side of history."

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