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Mitt Romney

Industrialist and philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., the father of Utah's governor, says he won't solicit contributions from Utahns — or Mormons anywhere — in his new role as a finance co-chairman of Mitt Romney's presidential exploratory committee.

"I don't want to get involved in situations that would bring the LDS Church into play," Huntsman told the Deseret Morning News in a telephone interview. "The letters I'm sending out to raise funds all have a disclaimer: This is not because of my church affiliation."

Huntsman, a member of the Fifth Quorum of the Seventy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was named Friday as one of nine heavy-hitters nationwide who'll raise money for Romney, a Republican.

He is the only Utahn in what's being called the first group of national finance co-chairmen. Others on the list are from Massachusetts, Florida, Missouri, Michigan, California and Tennessee and include eBay president and CEO Meg Whitman.

Although Huntsman won't be on hand for Romney's first major fund-raiser on Monday, his son David will be there for the daylong event, along with Huntsman's extensive list of contacts. Jon Huntsman Jr., though, is backing Arizona Sen. John McCain for president.

The "National Call Day" in Boston is expected to raise at least $1 million for Romney, whose term as governor of Massachusetts just ended. He served as head of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee and is credited with the success of the 2002 Winter Games.

Jon Huntsman Sr., the Salt Lake-based billionaire chairman and founder of one of the country's largest chemical makers, said he tells potential contributors that he is asking them for money because of his admiration for Romney.

"I feel it's important to say that because I don't want it perceived as a religious campaign of any kind. For me, it's about the best person who can lead our country at this pivotal point in time," Huntsman said during a break from touring Huntsman Corp. plants in the Southeast.

Last fall, Romney's fund-raising efforts generated headlines when the Boston Globe reported the former Utah Olympic leader was attempting to raise money through alumni chapters of the LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University.

The newspaper also reported Romney supporters claimed to have the backing of top church leaders. The church issued a statement reaffirming its position of political neutrality, and a spokesman said church leaders were not involved in candidate fund-raising.

Huntsman said he has hosted two events to introduce Romney to potential contributors, in Houston and Philadelphia, and is planning another in New York City. He said he won't, however, host any events in Utah.

"There are a lot of other folks in Utah who'll cover those bases. I don't intend to be one of them," Huntsman said. "I don't want to be caught up in anything that's regarded as church-state."

Romney received a standing ovation at the Philadelphia event by talking about the role of a CEO to the 130 business leaders gathered, Huntsman said. "I was so proud of the fact it wasn't political," he said. "The LDS Church wasn't mentioned once."

Huntsman said his late father-in-law, Elder David B. Haight, who was a member of the LDS Church's Quorum of the Twelve, grew up in Idaho with Romney's late father, former Michigan Gov. George Romney.

Romney's father and mother were family friends for half a century, Huntsman said. "They were almost like my own parents," he said, adding he was one of the earliest supporters of George Romney's brief presidential bid in 1972.

Huntsman said he and Romney became close after Romney took over the scandal-tainted 2002 Winter Games. As head of the Olympics, Huntsman said, Romney restored Utah's reputation around the world — including countries where the Huntsmans have plants.

"It meant a lot to me," Huntsman said, because until that turnaround, every time the Huntsmans made an investment overseas, the local press described Utah as the home of the Olympics scandal. "It really impacted our family's name and our family's corporation," he said.

Huntsman said he and some of his family contributed about $250,000 total to the political action committees organized on behalf of Romney before he created the political exploratory committee for a presidential race the first week of January.

Not on the list of contributors is Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who announced his support last year for McCain. The governor's father said it's not the first time they've backed different presidential candidates.

"It isn't like there's a great split in the family or anything," Huntsman said. In 2000, for example, he said he supported Elizabeth Dole while his son backed George Bush for the GOP nomination.

Bush won, of course, and the governor expects the same result this time around.

"The governor loves and respects his dad too much to provide an opposing sound bite, but he believes their respective choices in candidates will likely end much like they did in 2000, with the governor riding the winning horse," his spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley, said.

The governor's father said that in 2008, "there's no way I could ever support anyone other than Mitt." He said he'll continue to raise money for Romney. "I won't be out front in any sense of the word, but I'll do everything I can to raise the funds that are necessary for his campaign."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com