SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., currently serving as the U.S. ambassador to Russia, isn't expected to decide until early this fall whether he's getting in the 2020 governor's race.
But with new national attention on his potential plans Monday, what's the reason Huntsman may run for governor again?
Utah political observers say it's to help maintain his public profile once he leaves the Trump administration and position himself for possible opportunities under future presidents.
"Running for governor would be a good way to stay in the political game, especially if he doesn't see an immediate future in Washington," said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
Karpowitz said Huntsman is "in a unique political position" because he has worked for both President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and President Donald Trump, a Republican.
That could put him in line for a high-level post no matter who is elected president in 2020. Trump is running for re-election and there are nearly two dozen Democrats vying for their party's nomination.
Even though Huntsman made his own brief bid for the White House in 2012, what he's always really wanted is to be appointed U.S. secretary of state, said Kirk Jowers, a former Huntsman adviser.
"I think Gov. Huntsman's ultimate goal remains to be secretary of state," Jowers said Monday. "If that's true, the big question he must be asking himself is whether being Utah governor again can get him from here to there."
Huntsman does have the unique advantage of being a decent household name nationally," Jowers said. "Huntsman will never be considered just a small state governor because of his incredible diplomatic career and presidential run."
His possible entry into the race is not new. A source told the Deseret News in April that Huntsman was not ruling out what would be his third run for governor, after first being elected in 2004 and winning a second term four years later.
October will mark two years in Moscow for Huntsman, longer than he spent in Beijing as U.S. ambassador to China under Obama before leaving that post to run for president.
Huntsman has had no comment about the governor's race, saying in April that there is "nothing to consider until our current committment is done." A decision on the governor's race is said to be coming sometime in early fall.
With Gov. Gary Herbert not seeking another term, there is already no shortage of potential candidates. Herbert was Huntsman's lieutenant governor when Huntsman stepped down in 2009, soon into his second term, to join the Obama administration.
Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is the first to formally announce he's running for governor.
"I have a tremendous amount of respect for Ambassador Huntsman," Cox said in a statement. "I’m sure he will make the best decision for him and his family. Should he decide to run, I look forward to competing with him and sharing my ideas and vision for the future of our state.”
Greg Hughes, a former Utah House speaker, is already raising money for a gubernatorial run and anticipates formally getting in the race at the end of summer or in early fall.
One of only a few elected Utah officials who backed Huntsman for president in 2012 over the GOP's eventual nominee, now-Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, Hughes isn't counting Huntsman out as a potential opponent.
"I believe he is seriously considering it," Hughes said. "I love the former governor and his family and hold them in high regard, but that doesn’t change my approach and what I’m doing," he said.
Sources told the Deseret News that Hughes actually is hoping to run as Huntsman's lieutenant governor, which would put him in a position to become governor should Huntsman leave before the end of his term.
Hughes dismissed that scenario Monday.
"I'm not looking at the prospects for lieutenant governor," he said. "I'm looking at the prospects for running for governor of the state."
Former Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz has long looked at running for governor, but said last week he's going to stick with being a Fox News contributor rather than attempt to return to elected office.
Chaffetz, who ran Huntsman's first campaign for governor and served as his first chief of staff, had little to say about the possibility that his former boss would run for governor again.
"As I made my decision, he was not a factor," Chaffetz told the Deseret News. He said he had "no idea" whether Huntsman would run.
There's no question Huntsman would shake up the race.
Karpowitz said "given his name recognition and popularity as governor, Huntsman's entrance into the race would likely be a significant blow to candidates like Spencer Cox and Greg Hughes."
But the BYU political science professor said there's still a "big question" of whether Republican primary voters would see Huntsman, who backed civil unions for gay and lesbian couples in his abbreviated second term, as too moderate.
Another issue for Huntsman could be how voters view his leaving the office after his re-election.32 comments on this story
"He used it as a stepping stone," said one of the sources who claimed Hughes wants to join a Huntsman ticket. "I don't think Utahns would appreciate that. I don't think they would reward that."
Jowers said there is a lot of job satisfaction for governors as compared to other elected officials, and that may appeal to Huntsman after working for two administrations with a presidential bid in between.
Governors "all say it was the best and most fulfilling thing they've ever done," Jowers said. "From a public-minded point of view, it has to be attractive for him to jump in and take care of any unfinished business and really have no startup time."