Utah governor will face tough choice if both Romney and Huntsman run for president

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SALT LAKE CITY— Things could get a little awkward for Utah Gov. Gary Herbert in the 2012 Republican primaries, but he’s not sweating it yet.

Herbert’s friend Mitt Romney, whom he endorsed in 2008, will almost certainly run. And now rumor has it Herbert’s former running mate, former Gov. Jon Huntsman, is thinking about jumping into the race.

“The more the merrier, I guess. The more of my friends run, the better I like it,” Herbert said, nonetheless noting his previous support for Mitt Romney.

Huntsman and Herbert experienced a split over Republican primaries in 2008, when Herbert was serving as Huntsman’s lieutenant governor. Huntsman backed McCain over Romney.

Herbert succeeded Huntsman in 2009 when the former governor was sworn in as ambassador to China in the Obama administration. He was elected to his own term in 2010 with 65 percent of the vote, thanks in part to a public endorsement from Mitt Romney.

Herbert said Huntsman, whom he dubs “not as conservative as I am,” has important foreign policy experience.

“He brings a lot of facility certainly on the international issues,” he said.

If both men end up in the primary, Herbert said he’ll offer an endorsement, but gives a politician’s answer on who might get it.

“I will have to wait to see what I would do,” he said. “I might endorse them both.”

Most Utah political observers think he’ll be a Romney man all the way, despite having served with Huntsman.

While national political observers wonder how Huntsman could form a winning coalition in a Republican primary fresh off a stint in the Obama administration, Republican operatives in Utah believe the rumors of a 2012 run may be the means to another end — like Secretary of State or another high-level foreign policy or diplomatic slot in a prospective Republican administration. Huntsman also served as ambassador to Singapore during the George H.W. Bush administration.

Utah politicos also note that Huntsman, whose moderate record and past support for cap-and-trade would make a Republican primary challenging, is only 50 years old and may be building name recognition for a future run.