SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - Republicans seeking a path out of the political wilderness are eyeing Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Mormon who's nudged the conservative stronghold in a more moderate direction on the environment and gay rights and drawn praise from President Barack Obama's campaign manager.
The popular, 49-year-old Huntsman has spoken publicly of the need to open the Republican Party to a wider range of viewpoints if it is to attract younger voters. He's won praise from party elders, including 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain, who called the governor a potentially promising contender in 2012.
Huntsman has earned the respect of Obama's 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, whose election operation helped bring millions of new voters into the Democratic Party.
Plouffe said Huntsman is a Republican who "seems to understand the party has to adjust - not stubbornly believe that everything is OK and it is the country that has to change."
Huntsman, a married father of seven who made millions running his family's chemical company, is taking the sudden attention in stride.
"People are unsettled, they're looking to the future, they're trying to find a sense of direction and I don't know if in my 30 years of party involvement that I've ever seen or heard of a period quite like this before," Huntsman told The Associated Press in an interview at the governor's mansion.
Asked frequently whether he will seek the presidency, Huntsman always demurs, saying it would be premature to speculate about the future.
Huntsman's path to the presidency may not be easy. He's angered conservatives on a number of issues.
He signed an initiative that would set a regional cap-and-trade effort to reduce global warming. Over the objection of many in heavily Mormon Utah, Huntsman loosened the state's restrictive liquor laws to make it a more appealing destination for visitors.
Most notably, he has said he favors civil unions for gay couples even though he backed a state constitutional amendment passed in 2004 that prohibited same-sex marriage.
Huntsman has begun feeling the heat for his apparent leftward tilt.
Officials in Michigan last month canceled a GOP county fundraiser where Huntsman was to speak; they said he had abandoned important party principles.
The move was applauded by the American Family Association of Michigan, which has worked to ban gay marriages.
"In terms of who should be a leader of the party, you would expect them ... to be faithful to the principles of the platform," said the group's president, Gary Glenn.
Huntsman's views on climate change have drawn criticism from U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the governor's former chief of staff. At the state GOP convention last year, Chaffetz taunted the governor for raising concerns about global warming.
"Jon Huntsman, as much as I like you, you're wrong on global warming. It's a farce," Chaffetz said to raucous applause.
Another potential problem for Huntsman is his Mormon faith. Many Christian conservatives, who are an important part of the GOP electoral base, believe it is a cult.
In 2008, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney - a wealthy Mormon businessman like Huntsman - lost the GOP nomination to McCain, in part because of resistance from Christian conservatives. In an interview this past week, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said Romney's faith was a major factor in his defeat.
Romney is likely to seek the nomination again in 2012.
Nonetheless, many political observers believe Huntsman's liabilities among GOP base voters are the very qualities that could help him expand the party's demographic appeal.
"The difficulty facing the governor is exactly the difficulty facing the Republican Party, where they've got a base that is very opposed to gay marriage but societal trends seem to be moving in the other direction," Brigham Young University political scientist Quin Monson said.
In most respects, Huntsman is a traditional conservative. He favors restrictions on abortion, has worked to reduce state taxes and supports publicly funded vouchers for private school.
Huntsman has won record-setting approval ratings in Utah, in part by appealing to centrist voters and the relatively small number of Democrats in the state. He won a second term last November with 78 percent of the vote.
Huntsman has pledged not to seek a third term, sidestepping the threat of a potential conservative primary challenge. He has traveled the country and raised money for other Republicans, promoting the view that the party must renew its vision outside the confines of Washington.
"You can't hornswoggle the public into following you. You must prove the point through substantive offerings, and that's where we're having a challenge," Huntsman said. "Once you get several different ideas out there under the leadership of many Republican governors, you might have the making of at least a comeback from a substantive standpoint, and I would argue that's the only way the party over the short term is going to come back."