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On Saturday, when President Obama nominated his ambassador to China, he reached deep into John McCain's campaign team - and even into the short list of possible Republican rivals for 2012. The president chose Jon Huntsman, the Republican governor of Utah. From Salt Lake City, NPR's Howard Berkes reports on how Utah, Democrats and Republicans are reacting.
HOWARD BERKES: Utah is so Republican that even some of the state's rocks are red. The state senate's Democratic caucus could just about fit in a minivan. But some Utah Democrats seem disappointed that Republican Governor Jon Huntsman is likely headed to China.
Mr. TED WILSON: The Democrats have a secret saying in this state, that Huntsman is really ours.
BERKES: Ted Wilson is a veteran Utah Democrat and former two-term mayor of Salt Lake City.
Mr. WILSON: You have to understand, that statement comes from years of getting beaten down by Republican power in the state of Utah. And to have someone there with a moderate view, even liberal to a degree, was kind of a secret pleasure of Utah Democrats.
BERKES: Wait a minute. Wilson used the L word.
Mr. WILSON: ...even liberal to a degree.
BERKES: Even Utah Democrats avoid that label. But the 49-year-old Republican governor rattled Republican lawmakers when he joined a Western states' initiative to combat global warming. And he infuriated conservatives when he said he opposes gay marriage but supports civil unions for same-sex couples. That triggered a rally, where Republican leaders criticized Huntsman.
Pastor Bryan Hurlbutt at the Lifeline Community Church joined in.
Pastor BRYAN HURLBUTT (Lifeline Community Church): Governor Huntsman has placed himself in the precarious position of endorsing a view of human life and family that is at odds with the strong majority, as you've heard earlier, of his constituency and more importantly, at odds with a much higher authority.
(Soundbite of cheering, applause)
BERKES: No higher authority has struck Huntsman with lightning yet, and there hasn't been much political pain.
Kirk Jowers is a Republican who heads the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah.
Mr. KIRK JOWERS (Hinckley Institute of Politics, University of Utah): He went from about a 90 percent approval rating to about 82, 83. So it really didn't dent him too much. More importantly, public opinion on civil unions absolutely flipped, and where the state had been overwhelmingly against civil unions, it became a very close issue after that. So he moved the state of Utah on a very, you know, controversial and key issue.
BERKES: Huntsman did that without strident speeches or a concerted campaign. And he didn't say much about it when asked at one of his regular monthly news conferences, where he said his beliefs on the subject...
Governor JON HUNTSMAN (Republican, Utah): ...equate to equal rights for all people. The discussion that ensues about equal rights when it comes to the workplace, when it comes to housing, when it comes to reciprocal beneficiary rights, insurance and visitation rights, I think that's a very important discussion for this state to be having.
Huntsman's relatively careful and quiet approach is - well, diplomatic, says Kirk Jowers of the University of Utah.
Mr. JOWERS: He will push his issues, but he will do it in an agreeable way.
BERKES: This diplomacy may stem from Huntsman's challenging Mormon mission in Taiwan, where he learned to speak Mandarin. He also worked for the multinational chemical company owned by his billionaire father, and he was deputy U.S. trade representative for Asia and ambassador to Singapore. He's tried to use this diplomatic DNA to make the national Republican Party more moderate, and he's on short lists of possible presidential candidates. Jowers believes an ambassadorship in China positions Huntsman for 2016.
Mr. JOWERS: He is now a small-state governor who had the incredible responsibility of ambassador to the most important nation worldwide besides the United States. That gives him a certain gravitas that he otherwise would not easily get.
BERKES: Huntsman wouldn't take questions at a news conference in Utah yesterday, but offered a very simple explanation for his decision to say yes to the president.
Gov. HUNTSMAN: I now know why they built the Oval Office.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Gov. HUNTSMAN: It is an impossible room in which to say no.
BERKES: Republican Jon Huntsman says he'll resign as Utah's governor when the Senate confirms him as ambassador to China.
Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City.
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