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Huntsman’s Utah record polarizes GOP voters
SALT LAKE CITY — Conservatives who dominate the Republican presidential nomination contests will applaud parts of Jon Huntsman Jr.’s five-year record as Utah governor: a statewide flat tax, business incentives and private school vouchers.
They’re likely to cringe at others, including his support of cap and trade as a response to climate change, his backing of civil unions for gay couples, and his support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants.
As he moves forward with a probable presidential run, Mr. Huntsman’s record in one of the country’s most Republican states presents him with a challenge: He must strike a balance between emphasizing the fiscally conservative policies likely to attract GOP primary voters and explaining others certain to repel them.
It’s something he has been trying to do in the month since he returned to the United States after serving as President Obama’s ambassador to China. He’s spent the past few weeks visiting early-voting states such as New Hampshire and South Carolina and testing his campaign message.
He returned to Utah this weekend for the first time since resigning his ambassadorship, a visit that will include attending his son’s high school graduation and a ceremony featuring the unveiling of his gubernatorial portrait.
During his tenure, the governor put together a conservative economic record, the heart of which was a mostly successful effort to overhaul Utah’s tax code to make it more modern and encourage business investment.
In 2007, Mr. Huntsman signed a bill providing a tuition voucher for up to $3,000 for private-school students. Although the law was overturned by a referendum one year later, it was one of the first state voucher programs in the country.
“Clearly, he’s a Republican who is conservative,” said GOP Gov. Gary R. Herbert, who succeeded Mr. Huntsman. “He cut taxes and reformed the code. A lot of people wish we had more conservatives like that.”
Then there are the not-so-conservative parts of Mr. Huntsman’s record.
As governor, he took heat for his involvement in a program aimed at reducing carbon emissions. The Western Climate Initiative, which included six states and three Canadian provinces, had a cap-a-trade provision and encouraged fuel-efficient vehicles, renewable energy use and energy conservation.
Facing criticism, Mr. Huntsman has defended his actions as true to the Republican legacy.
“The Republican values I’m speaking to are right out of … Teddy Roosevelt’s playbook. He taught us all to revere our land, to leave a legacy … to the next generation,” he said in 2008. “I’m also doing a very Republican thing to incentivize and develop technologies that are going to fuel our economy.”
But now, as he eyes the GOP nomination, Mr. Huntsman is backing away from the cap-and-trade component by arguing that it hurts job growth. He still, however, defers to the majority of scientists who claim global warming is caused by humans, an unpopular opinion among many Republicans.
On social issues, Mr. Huntsman the governor backed bills providing civil rights protections to homosexuals and threatened to veto a measure repealing in-state college tuition for the children of illegal immigrants.
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