Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is looking more and more like a presidential candidate for the GOP nomination in 2012.
During a trip this week to Washington, D.C., for a meeting of the National Governors' Association, Huntsman will make two political stops, including one in South Carolina.
As the first Southern state to vote in a presidential primary, South Carolina is seen as a critical test for candidates. Political insiders there are often courted very early in the election cycle, long before candidates declare they're in the race.
Huntsman, already being touted as a presidential contender by the Washington Post and other national media, will get a chance to introduce himself to a group of key South Carolina Republicans at a dinner hosted Friday night by that state's GOP attorney general, Henry McMaster.
"That is a sign there is at least some thought of a presidential campaign," said Matthew Wilson, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who specializes in religion and politics. Huntsman needs to visit early primary states because, Wilson said, he is unknown to anyone who's not closely following the race.
"Only people who are really, really political junkies are talking about him now. He's third tier," Wilson said, behind a handful of better-known likely candidates including former Utah Olympic leader Mitt Romney, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in 2008.
South Carolina was seen as a place for Romney to prove a Mormon candidate could win in the South, where evangelical Christians often view members of the LDS Church as belonging to a cult. Romney ended up all but dropping out of the race there.
Romney did, however, spend plenty of time in South Carolina in the years leading up to the election, even forming a political action committee there to contribute to like-minded candidates. Huntsman has yet to take that step, although he is expected to host a fundraiser for McMaster in Utah soon.
"The South is a make-or-break region for a Mormon presidential candidate," Wilson said, suggesting the situation will be no different for Huntsman. "It's probably no accident he's trying to lay the groundwork in the South."
Huntsman, of course, has not declared his political intentions other than pledging he will not seek a third term as governor. He was re-elected by a record margin last November and the latest Deseret News/KSL-TV poll gives him an 80 percent approval rating.
The governor's spokeswoman, Lisa Roskelley, said the South Carolina trip, as well as another to a GOP fundraiser in North Carolina, just fit into his schedule. "We get a lot of requests for the governor to come to a lot of events around the country," she said. "These were convenient."
Roskelley said Huntsman, who leaves the state Thursday and won't return until Monday, "is happy being governor." But, she said, "it's important to understand that Republican governors are critical to rebuilding the Republican Party nationally and Gov. Huntsman will certainly play a role."
Any "party-building" activities by Huntsman can only boost his chances in a national campaign, Richard Quinn, a political consultant for South Carolina's attorney general, told the Deseret News. "You're doing the Lord's work from a Republican Party point of view."
He said Huntsman would be a viable presidential candidate. "He's obviously an interesting and attractive official. I would say that if that's something he's interested in, he would be pretty formidable," Quinn said. "A fresh, new governor from Utah with a good record is attractive."
Quinn said the dinner will include 20 to 30 people that the attorney general considers supporters and advisers but is not a fundraiser for McMaster, who may run for governor of South Carolina. Huntsman and McMaster were both early supporters of their party's failed presidential candidate, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
"It's never too early in politics. And presidential elections are getting more and more front-loaded," Quinn said of Huntsman's visit to South Carolina. "Even if a person ends up not running for president."
Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said if Huntsman wants the opportunity to seriously consider entering the race, it makes sense for him to develop good will across the country
"Republicans lack a clear leader at this point, and Gov. Huntsman finds himself one of a small pack of potential national leaders. So he is simply in a lot of demand right now," Jowers said.
Huntsman has further fueled talk of a possible run for the White House with his declaration of his support for civil unions last week, which made conservative GOP lawmakers fume but attracted more national attention.
Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, said Huntsman's attracting attention as a potential candidate "can't be bad for the state." But he said politicians always should be "doing the best they can for their current constituents. If that lends itself to a national future, great."