SALT LAKE CITY – Political insiders are betting on a former diplomat to emerge as a top nominee for governor at the Utah Republican convention Saturday, possibly replacing Gov. Olene Walker (search) as the party's standard-bearer.
Jon Huntsman Jr. (search), former U.S. Ambassador to Singapore during the first Bush administration, has quickly risen to frontrunner status at a time when Walker has enjoyed a particularly bumpy ride for an incumbent.
"Every poll I've seen, Huntsman comes out on top," Utah pollster Dan Jones said Wednesday.
Huntsman, 44, is the heir to his family's chemical conglomerate, Huntsman Family Holdings Co., and enjoys the name recognition attached to one of Utah's biggest companies. He currently serves as chairman and chief executive of the company and also is a trade representative in the current Bush administration.
Walker, 73, is a former lieutenant governor who is finishing Gov. Mike Leavitt's term and running for a full term of her own. Leavitt left Utah last November to become administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (search).
Many within her own party have viewed Walker as a caretaker and merely another candidate who waited on Leavitt to step down after three terms.
Walker has sought to appeal to the party's more conservative wing, which views her as too moderate. She has tried to assure delegates that she is loyal to anti-abortion and pro-gun rights stances.
But Walker also has publicly feuded with party leaders and resisted some conservative causes, led by her opposition to private school vouchers and pushing for increased public education funding.
"We've heard a lot of different things from a lot of different polls. We know Huntsman is up there with the governor and a couple of other candidates. Delegates will have their choice," Walker campaign spokeswoman Tiffany Smith said.
Each of the convention's 3,500 delegates will rank the candidates. If no one wins 60 percent of the convention vote, the top two vote-getters advance to the June primary.
Other candidates include Board of Regents chairman Nolan Karras, Merit Medical Systems chief executive Fred Lampropoulos and Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens.
The presumed Democratic nominee is Scott Matheson Jr., dean of the University of Utah College of Law and oldest son of Utah's last Democratic governor, who served for two terms ending in 1985.