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Could dogged devotion earn guv a VP spot?

Published March 2, 2008 12:51 am

Speculation grows on Utah's young leader completing a McCain ticket
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

WASHINGTON - In Utah political circles, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. seemed to be hitching his future on a John McCain presidency with an eye toward a big-time ambassadorship or high-level Cabinet post.

Not even the most starry-eyed of the Utah GOP had the audacity to hope for a McCain-Huntsman presidential ticket.

But now that McCain is the presumptive nominee, Huntsman is appearing on several short lists as a possible running mate. The Washington Post, The Associated Press and the Atlantic, among others, have floated Huntsman as a possibility for rounding out the GOP ticket.

Huntsman laughs off the speculation, as do a bevy of political odds-makers. But some others warn against dismissing the Utah governor so quickly.

"The truth is that no one, perhaps not even John McCain himself, knows the answer to the question of who will be the vice presidential candidate," said Stan Barnes, an Arizona political consultant and friend of McCain.

But the speculation - and there are loads of it - points to a youthful governor liked by conservatives who already has an established friendship with McCain. This narrows the list to a handful of leaders, including the governors of Florida, Minnesota and Utah.

"Governor Huntsman is qualified on a number of fronts," Barnes said. "He is someone that John McCain admires and has affection for. That kind of qualification is subjective and one that only John McCain himself can judge."

Huntsman has backed McCain throughout the contest, even as Republicans in his home state mocked him for not supporting Romney, who received 90 percent of Utah's Republican primary votes. On the day The New York Times ran a much-criticized story about McCain's close relationship with a female lobbyist, McCain called Huntsman to talk.

The Utah governor has also stumped for McCain in Florida and other states and the two have forged a friendship in the heat of the battle. The ties have spurred speculation that if McCain wins the White House, Huntsman may be tagging along in some capacity.

McCain isn't likely to name a running mate for months, giving ample time for commentators to bat around possible picks and discuss who would make the best fit and why. Who would rally support among conservatives? Who would help McCain raise money? How important is picking someone from another region?

No harm: Washington political analyst Jennifer Duffy boils it down this way. She said vice presidential candidates above all else must follow the oath taken by medical students nationwide - do no harm.

"And I don't think Huntsman does any harm," said Duffy, who works for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.

She argues Huntsman's youth would assuage concerns about McCain's age. He would be 72 when he took the oath of office, while Huntsman would be 48. Duffy also said Huntsman is a solid conservative who can help McCain rally the right wing.

But Huntsman does have a few weaknesses as a vice presidential selection.

As Mitt Romney's presidential race showed, some voters are hesitant to support a Mormon. So Huntsman's faith might be a disadvantage, though Duffy doubts that it would be a major liability.

Dan Coen, the author of a book on vice presidents called Second String and publisher of the Web magazine vicepresidents.com, said McCain needs to pick an experienced person with a national presence. Huntsman is in the final year of his first term and is little known outside Republican circles.

"I think there is virtually no chance," Coen says. "He needs someone folks are comfortable with right off the bat."

Not Huntsman: Dave HanÂsen, a political adviser to top Utah Republicans, puts it even more bluntly: "It is not going to be Jon Huntsman Jr. as vice president. That really doesn't make a lot of sense."

He says the geography simply doesn't work. Utah borders Arizona and a ticket of two Western politicians does nothing to help in other regions. And, as Hansen points out, McCain hardly needs to worry about winning Utah, which hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

"If they have to worry about holding Utah, then they lost all of the other 49 states," Hansen said.

He compliments Huntsman's political skills and lengthy résumé, which includes a stint as Singapore's ambassador and deputy U.S. trade representative. But Hansen believes Huntsman is better suited to be an ambassador to China or India, or maybe McCain would name him Commerce secretary.

Huntsman - while not ruling out that he would take the position if offered - says the speculation is simply a Washington parlor game.

Plenty of options: McCain has other possibilities that carry many of the same advantages that Huntsman would bring, but don't carry similar weaknesses.

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, for example, is a conservative whose endorsement helped hand McCain a victory in the Sunshine State. And in a general election, carrying Florida is a boon to any candidate.

Likewise, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is a rising GOP star from a swing state, and the Republican National Convention will be held in St. Paul. And a cadre of other potential vice presidential candidates exists: Romney, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, among others.

With the Democrats fielding a ticket featuring either a black man or a woman, some in the GOP are tossing out the idea of matching McCain, a white man, with a woman, possibly Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Conventional political wisdom points to the idea of matching McCain with a Southern, conservative governor, such as South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford or Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Mark Halperin, a Time magazine political analyst and author of "The Undecided Voters' Guide to the Next President," says lots of names will be floated to fill a vacuum of actual news about potential running mates in the most wide-open presidential race in memory.

"You're going to see a lot of names like Huntsman's float up in the air, but they won't have any connections to who will actually be considered by McCain."

tburr@sltrib.com

mcanham@sltrib.com