Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. has picked his preferred presidential candidate for the 2008 Republican nomination and it's not fellow Mormon and former Utah Olympic leader Mitt Romney.
Instead, Huntsman's office said Wednesday that Utah's governor will serve as one of many co-chairmen of early frontrunner Sen. John McCain's political-action committee, Straight Talk America.
"The governor has a great deal of respect for Gov. Romney of Massachusetts," said Huntsman's spokesman, Mike Mower. "He felt he did an admirable job as head of our Olympic committee here in Utah and is a strong and effective governor in Massachusetts."
But in the end, Huntsman found he had more in common with McCain when it came to Western issues, as well as foreign policy, Mower said, adding that McCain's "understanding of America's role in the world is unparalleled."
Huntsman's decision to help the Arizona Republican prepare for a likely presidential bid comes despite having advised Romney, now governor of Massachusetts, on foreign-policy issues in anticipation of a possible run for the White House.
The governor's father, Jon Huntsman Sr., is one of Romney's biggest supporters.
"It was absolutely a surprise," said Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and legal counsel to Romney's Commonwealth PACs. "The Huntsman family, including the governor, have been extremely supportive of Gov. Romney."
According to a recent Deseret Morning News analysis, Jon Huntsman Sr. had given Romney's PACs nearly $130,000 and is the Romney committee's national finance co-chairman. Romney has relied on Utahns for nearly half the money his PACs have collected.
"It's no secret that McCain has actively courted Gov. Huntsman, presumably because he sees Gov. Romney as his biggest rival if they both get into the race," Jowers said. Still, he said, Romney shouldn't be hurt by not having the support of Utah's governor.
Craig Goldman, executive director of McCain's PAC, said Huntsman is expected to "boost (McCain's) efforts as far as the PAC goes in all the Western states, including Utah." Huntsman will help choose the Western candidates who receive money from McCain's PAC.
McCain asked Huntsman to join the PAC last week, when the governor was in Washington to meet with administration officials about a number of Utah issues. The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Huntsman urged McCain then to run for president.
Mower said the pair met only about a year ago, when Huntsman approached McCain for help in dealing with the controversial immigration issue. Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador and trade representative, apparently hit it off with McCain.
By March, Huntsman was traveling to Iraq to visit the troops, at McCain's invitation, as part of a small delegation of governors and members of Congress. This summer, McCain addressed the Utah GOP state convention at Huntsman's request.
There, McCain cited Huntsman as a rising star in the Republican party who he expected to do big things on a national, or even international, scale. For Huntsman, that could include serving in a GOP presidential administration.
But there's some suggestion a President Romney might be more cautious about appointing a fellow Mormon to a key role. Recent polls have shown that about one-third of registered voters would not be willing to vote for an LDS presidential candidate.
Earlier this week, LDS filmmaker Mitch Davis announced he is raising money for a media campaign that he hopes will begin airing in the South this fall, in an attempt to counter what he called "religious bigotry."
Mower said that didn't play into Huntsman's decision, and Jowers agreed. "Gov. Huntsman has apparently made this move based on his personal relationship with Sen. McCain, and there are no indications that religion has anything to do with that decision," Jowers said.
Huntsman appears to be the first governor who has jumped on board with a potential presidential candidate, Jowers said. Kelly Patterson, director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said it is early for such an announcement.
"It's just a strong signal that presidential politics starts earlier and earlier," Patterson said. "The big advantage is if and when that candidate is successful, you were there at the beginning. It's a gamble that could pay off big."Neither McCain nor Romney are expected to declare their candidacies until after the November midterm elections. Both are now raising money to help woo support for the future by funding GOP candidates in key primary states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.