Washington » Fresh off a political trip to the key presidential primary state of South Carolina, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. demurred the speculation that he is gunning for the Oval Office.
It's too early for that, he says.
Huntsman, settling into Washington for meetings with governors from across the country, said Saturday he's focusing his efforts on reviving the ideals of the Republican Party, not on a future White House bid.
"Truth be told, I never thought I'd run for governor two years before I was elected," said Huntsman, now in his self-limited second and final term. "It's really hard to see around the next turn and where you might be."
Coy words perhaps from a governor The Washington Post 's political handicapper called maybe "the most popular politician in the country at the moment and someone with clear ambitions for national office."
Huntsman's positioning has other national political observers eyeing him as well.
"He's got the presidential bug," said Larry Sabato, head of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "He hasn't made that many moves yet [to show he's running], but he certainly has made a couple that shows the door is open. But that doesn't mean he'll walk through it."
But Huntsman, who spoke at a Reagan Day Dinner in North Carolina and huddled with political heavyweights in South Carolina in the past few days, says he's not setting up a ground network for any future aspirations. His only goal, he says, is to help rebuild the GOP, which he asserts has "strayed from some of our moorings."
The governor -- who cemented himself further as a moderate Republican recently by endorsing civil unions and other gay-rights measures (a "brave" stand, Sabato says) -- has choice words for his party's direction. The GOP needs to modernize its world view, he says, and must revive itself as the "party of solutions, and not the party of empty rhetoric."
"The stakes of the tent have to be pulled up and broadened," Huntsman said. "When you're left with limited demographics to draw from, limited geographic regions that are loyal, when you lose the youth vote to the extent we did, and voters of color, that's happened for a reason."
Successful parties need to deliver results, he insists, not "hot air."
Huntsman, who is in the nation's capital for the National Governors Association winter conference, says he doesn't yet have any political action committees in Utah or elsewhere raising money, but that he may field one at some point.
"Now do you do that going forward sometime in the future to help, you know, maybe amplify your voice on party matters? Maybe," he said. "I just don't know.
"As of right now, I don't have anything. I'm not closing the door to anything," he added, referring to the possibility of setting up a fundraising network.
While some of his Southern counterparts, including governors from Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi and South Carolina, have criticized President Barack Obama's massive stimulus package and are threatening not to take some of the money, Huntsman says Utah will cash the check and put the money into backfilling the state's budget hole and launching transportation projects.
"If there are some governors that are complaining about stimulus money, then they shouldn't take it," Huntsman said. "It's pretty simple."
The governor says Utah's stimulus portion, estimated at more than $1.5 billion, will be factored into state and local programs, and a potential executive committee will track the cash flow and post its results on a soon-to-be-created Web site.