Jon Huntsman plunged into Utah’s gubernatorial race as an obvious front-runner, quickly ascending to a top spot in the polls and settling comfortably there.

However, as the primary season heats up, it appears the former governor’s campaign is scrambling — not just to succeed in the primary, but to appear on the ballot at all.

Monday is the deadline for gubernatorial candidates to gather the 28,000 valid signatures needed to clinch a spot on the ballot. By Friday, Huntsman’s campaign was still about 3,000 names short.

"If there's anyone who can probably pull it off at the last minute, Huntsman is probably as capable of doing it as anyone else," said Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University.

But, he adds, the eleventh hour push suggests the Huntsman campaign underestimated the amount of time and effort it would take to collect signatures from roughly 3.5% of the state’s registered Republicans.

The coronavirus outbreak certainly didn’t help candidates in their endeavor, which typically requires plenty of face-to-face interaction between canvassers and people signing the candidates’ petitions. GOP gubernatorial candidate Jeff Burningham suspended his signature-gathering because of the public health concerns, while Republican rival Jan Garbett has implored the state to relax the election requirements in light of the pandemic.

Last month, Gov. Gary Herbert issued an executive order allowing candidates to collect signatures electronically — people can now print out a copy of the petition page, sign it and then scan it to send back to the campaigns.

Huntsman’s campaign manager, Lisa Roskelley, said supporters have been texting and emailing signatures since these rules loosened, adding that the elections office is now working through a batch of about 7,000 additional names. But both Roskelley and Garbett say the process is still complicated by the reality that many people don’t own printers.

“Our biggest goal for those people is just to make sure that they have options and are included in the process and are enfranchised,” Roskelley said.

Garbett said Herbert’s concessions on signature-gathering fell far short of what was needed to ensure a fair election process. He could’ve taken more meaningful action by reducing the required number of signatures needed to appear on the ballot or by extending the deadline, her campaign has said.

“But we have a governor who has decided not to help," she said.

Garbett said she is looking at taking legal action in response to the signature issue but isn’t sure when she might take that step.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Jan Garbett speaks after filing to run for governor, in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 19, 2020.

While the COVID-19 emergency was certainly a setback to gathering signatures, candidates shouldn’t place all the blame on the pandemic, Cann says. Two gubernatorial candidates, Thomas Wright and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, both managed to reach the 28,000-signature mark and have guaranteed their place on the primary ballot, he noted.

Compared to some of the other campaigns, Cann said, Huntsman canvassers were relatively late to knock on his door.

“If being on the ballot really means that much to him, why was he not out there by the second week of January with everyone else who was doing this?” the professor said.

The high number of signature rejections has also been a problem for Huntsman’s bid. State elections officials by Thursday had reviewed more than 44,500 signatures submitted by the Huntsman campaign and had tossed out more than half of them — because the names were illegible, didn’t match what was on file or the person had already signed another candidate’s petition.

Wright and Cox fared much better with their signatures, with rejection rates of 17% and 28%, respectively.

Salt Lake City resident Cappey Jones, who circulated a petition in support of Huntsman, said she was incensed to learn state elections officials had scrapped all but eight of the 35 signatures she handed in. Jones said she and a number of the people whose signatures were eliminated tried to get answers from the state, but to no avail.

“People are outraged, and they should be, because I feel like our democracy is being taken away from us right under our noses,” she said, noting that Cox, one of the candidates in the race, also supervises the state’s elections office as lieutenant governor.

Cox has appointed former Lt. Gov. Gayle McKeachnie as a neutral party to review controversies that might affect his campaign. McKeachnie has confirmed he’s helped handle complaints about the difficulty of signature-gathering during the coronavirus.

Justin Lee, the state’s director of elections, also noted that his office hires temporary workers through Davis County to process signatures. While his office has used temporary employees in past elections, the practice has had an added benefit this year.

“Because Spencer Cox is on the ballot, we have a level of separation from who’s actually working on these [signatures],” he said.

Roskelley said the Huntsman campaign does have concerns about some of the rejected signatures, especially those eliminated because the person wasn’t on file as a Republican. A number of people have tried to change their party affiliation, but there seems to be a lag in processing these switches, she said.

The presidential primary in March was a complicating factor, Lee explained, because of the mandated freeze on party changes in the 30 days before an election. People who tried to affiliate as a Republican in that monthlong period and also signed a petition might have run into trouble, he said.

Lee said there is no formal process for contesting signature rejection but that his office is working with candidates who have questions and are happy to examine any issues they raise.

Even if Huntsman doesn’t meet the signature requirement, he can still qualify for the ballot by winning support from party delegates during the Republican nominating convention on April 25. This could be a challenging option for the more moderate Huntsman, however, since party insiders tend to favor more hard-line conservative candidates.

Sen. Mike Lee, a favorite of the most conservative Republicans, endorsed Huntsman on Friday — a move clearly designed to help bolster Huntsman’s standing with GOP delegates.

Cann said it would be “unwise" to count out the former governor.

But Huntsman’s fight to gather the requisite number of signatures challenges the conventional wisdom that well-heeled candidates can simply buy their way onto the ballot by hiring canvassers, Cann said. In Utah, it’s proving to be a bit more complicated than that.

Editor’s note: Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, chairman of The Salt Lake Tribune’s nonprofit board of directors.