In Utah, a Lukewarm Homecoming for Huntsman

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After a whirlwind kickoff week for his presidential campaign, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman returns to his home state Tuesday, where he will tour a medical-device facility, speak to a conference and hold a posh fund-raiser. It could have been a triumphant homecoming. Huntsman was a wildly popular governor. He won re-election in 2008 with 78% of the vote and enjoyed nearly 90% approval ratings before leaving to become Ambassador to China in 2009.

But while Huntsman served in Beijing, the ardor seems to have cooled at home in Utah.

A February poll taken by the Salt Lake City-based Deseret News found fellow Mormon and GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney routing Huntsman among Utah voters, 56% to 26%. In another poll conducted by the paper in April, Romney snared 69% of the vote, with Huntsman grabbing just 14%. Those numbers appear to have instilled confidence in Romney, whose advisers are pushing to move up the state’s primary, from late June to earlier in the spring, to give it a place of greater prominence on the nomination calendar.

There’s no question Romney could be a juggernaut in the Beehive State, whose residents contributed $5.5 million to his 2008 campaign. Four years ago, Utah was the Romney campaign’s second-biggest source of funding behind California, outpacing even Massachusetts, where the candidate served as governor. Romney’s deep connections in Utah were shored up by his star turn as the savior of the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics. “I would definitely say that Mitt Romney has the edge over Gov. Huntsman if they were paired against each other. He would definitely have the advantage in popular opinion in our group,” Anthony Panek, president of the University of Utah College Republicans, told TIME.

In some ways that edge makes sense, even though Huntsman doesn’t suffer from the name-recognition deficit in Utah that plagues him elsewhere in the U.S. While Romney has more or less been running for the presidency for five years, Huntsman’s campaign has only been gearing up for two months, after a two-year stint on the other side of the world. “He’s an extremely popular governor here — his policies and his ideas and his internationalism are in sync with what people want to support,” Lew Cramer, a Salt Lake City businessman who left Romney to serve on Huntsman’s national finance committee, told the Deseret News. And yet, the Republican Party’s lurch to the right may mean that some of Huntsman’s former supporters are no longer eager to embrace a pragmatist who defied GOP orthodoxy on issues like civil unions, capping carbon emissions and the stimulus.

At a gathering in Washington on Monday, Utah Tea Party activists — who are spearheading a campaign to oust long-serving Senator Orrin Hatch for being insufficiently conservative — took a relatively dim view of Huntsman’s tenure. “[It was] okay. Nothing particularly egregious,” says D.J. Schanz, a Republican activist and former candidate for the state legislature who is supporting Ron Paul. “If you like milquetoast, I think Jon Huntsman’s great.”

“He was a good governor, or at least not a bad governor,” says David Kirkham, head of the Provo-based Utah Tea Party. But Kirkham isn’t enthused about Huntsman’s candidacy this time around. “His answer to the problems in live are more government,” Kirkham explains. Darcy Van Orden, chairwoman of Utah’s Republican Liberty Caucus, adds: “His policies are far too progressive when it comes to cap-and-trade and health care.”

But while such policies may be a deal-breaker with Tea Party activists, Huntsman plans to play up his stewardship of the state, which enjoyed five years of balanced budgets and economic growth during his tenure. “He’s going to spend a lot of time talking about his record in Utah, and that record compares favorably with any other candidate,” says spokesman Tim Miller. That seemed true even a few years ago. But GOP voters may assess it differently now. “I think there’s been a fundamental change in the understanding of U.S. citizens about the purpose of government,” says Kirkham of the Utah Tea Party. The central question of Huntsman’s candidacy is whether that fundamental change has left him behind.

With reporting by Elizabeth Dias