SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said Tuesday he's ready to hit the campaign trail for his one-time rival for the GOP presidential nomination, Mitt Romney.
But in a wide-ranging interview with the Deseret News, Huntsman at times offered only lukewarm support for the fellow Mormon who beat him out for the job of running the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"I see him as the best of the options we have available," Huntsman said of Romney. When asked about the strength of his support, Huntsman said he saw his comment "as a ringing endorsement."
Romney, he said again, is "the best we have out there. We have a choice at the end of the day and he's my choice. I think he's the best equipped by far to deal with the economic issues and challenges that confront us."
Later, Huntsman talked about the need for the Republican Party to embrace "big ideas that speak to solutions" in order to survive. "You can't be small and you can't be fearful. You've got to be hopeful," he said.
But asked if the party was headed in that direction given his description of its apparent nominee, Huntsman shrugged. "Who knows? Once you give the newly elected president the reins of power, people rise to the occasion," he said.
Still, Huntsman said, Romney has earned the right to represent the GOP on the November ballot because he emerged victorious from a "bruising, tortuous primary process" as a better candidate than he was in 2008.
"He's grown a lot, he's learned a lot. He's probably better prepared to lead," Huntsman said. He said voters are looking for the executive skills Romney showed as head of the Olympics and as governor of Massachusetts.
"You don't have to be a perfect campaigner," Huntsman said. "He managed a state, he turned around the Olympics here. He's got the ability to manage and to be an executive."
Huntsman, who served as U.S. ambassador to China under President Barack Obama, the Democratic choice on the November ballot, was less than complimentary about his former boss.
Obama, he said, "had soaring and compelling rhetoric that really captivated a good part of the country" as a candidate, but once elected didn't have the experience needed to be an effective policy-maker.
"That's where you would have a Gov. Romney step up, who would be more familiar with how to use the levers of power and get things done," Huntsman said. "When he was in a governing environment, he excelled."
Huntsman discounted talk of bad blood between him and Romney that reportedly started over the Olympic job and continued on the campaign trail.
Even his initial endorsement of Romney was seen as less than enthusiastic, especially after his daughter said in an interview that her father would not serve as a surrogate for Romney on the campaign trail.
"I think it's the media that's created more drama than there is. The fact of the matter is, I don't know Gov. Romney well," Huntsman said. "I respect him. And I like the man. I think he has a first-rate family."
The last time the pair talked, Huntsman said, was the January day he dropped out of the presidential race and offered his support to Romney. He said he's ready to help Romney get elected.
"I'm not a surrogate because I haven't been asked to be a surrogate. If they want help, I'd be happy to help, absolutely," Huntsman said, adding that he understands there might not be a role for him.
"You want to be very respectful," Huntsman said. "And if they need your help, they know where to find you."
Huntsman, who now splits his time between his family's home in Washington, D.C. and a condo in the new City Creek development in downtown Salt Lake City, said he's made no decisions about his own political future.
"You have to be a little nutty to be even speculating about where you might go in the future after just getting off the campaign trail," he said. "You have to let things settle in."
Politics, Huntsman said, "is a whole lot of serendipity. It's a combination of preparation and opportunity colliding head on. ... You win some and you lose some, but that's life and it's hard to know what the future holds."
Although Huntsman was viewed as a more likely presidential candidate in 2016 or beyond, he said he has no second thoughts about jumping into the race this election.
"I'm not much of a politician. You know, I can't say I'm going to gear my life and run in 2016 or run in 2020. I just don't think that way," he said. "You either get in when your issues are hot or you don't get in at all."
His White House bid, however, also meant he saw the negative side of politics up close. He said the current political debate over the killing of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden is frustrating.
"The most recent coming together of we as Americans was after Osama bin Laden was killed," he said. For at least a few moments, "We actually felt as one. Let's face it, this country, we haven't put points on the scoreboard for a long time."
As a candidate, Huntsman said he was particularly disappointed in the lack of substantive discussion during the series of GOP debates. Those debates largely amounted to theatrics, he said, attempts to force candidates to offer "red meat answers" intended to whip up partisan audiences.
"I would stand there in utter amazement and shock that we weren't talking about the issues that really did matter to the American people," Huntsman said.
But religion is not one of the issues most voters were raising on the campaign trail. "I think a lot of people got it out of their system four years ago," he said.
That's when Romney faced plenty of questions about his membership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Huntsman said he didn't deal with the same level of interest, because voters are more concerned about the economy.
Huntsman did make news early in his campaign by saying that his own faith was difficult to define.
"We are who we are," he said. "I've always taken a rather ecumenical view of life. You're very proud of your roots and your upbringing. It makes you who you are. But you then add another layer of appreciation for a whole lot of other traditions that are out there."
Romney has been criticized for not opening up more about his religious beliefs. Huntsman said that may change as the campaign continues.
"To the extent that it humanizes a candidate, it's not a bad thing to talk about some of the shared experiences, to talk about leadership as part of a clergy, years spent overseas doing humanitarian work, proselytizing," Huntsman said. "I suspect he'll talk more about that."
Contributing: Richard Piatt
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