2012 And Huntsman's Surprise

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(with reporting from Justin Miller)

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Jr. (R) stunned his state when his spokesperson  announced the governor's support for civil unions. 70 percent of Utahns oppose civil unions, but their objections won't count against Huntsman who said he won't run for a third term as governor - but they could weigh heavily on a 2012 White House run.  Huntsman is presidential-quality timber. One of the most popular governors in the country, he's smart, has deep pockets that could fund a campaign and he's had a conservative record earned by cutting taxes and slimming government. He is pro-life and calls himself a social conservative.  In fact, the Weekly Standard calls him as "impressive as [Bobby] Jindal, though far more moderate." After this week's development Huntsman will live up to the "far more moderate" label. Huntsman was one of the first governors to endorse John McCain in 2008 and stayed with McCain through The Troubles.

Should he run for president, Huntsman would take heat, just as ex-Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney  The Republican base, by and large, is suspicious of candidates who support any legal recognition of same-sex couples. A large plurality -- maybe a majority  -- of early Republican primary voters are viscerally uncomfortable with homosexuality and view it as a threat.

Mr. Romney was blasted as a false convert to the "pro-marriage" side for appearing to switch his position from favoring civil unions to opposing them. Romney said he supported neither arrangement for gays but preferred civil unions if he had to choose; he was pushed into weighing in on the issue because of his state's Supreme Court legalized gay marriage during his term.

Huntsman might have it worse: he is choosing to take a position on the issue without being pressured to.  "Pro family" groups have accused him of betraying conservatives by embracing civil unions after campaigning against them in 2004 when he ran for governor and said he supported Utah's constitutional amendment outlawing unions and marriage for gays. Huntsman hasn't yet explained his mind-change in detail.

The bill Huntsman endorsed has little chance of passing the conservative Utah legislature.

Beyond civil unions, Huntsman also threw his support behind a bill to allow two unmarried, co-habiting adults to sign a "joint-support declaration" to gain inheritance rights and medical-decision making decisions for one another, as well as a bill to outlaw employment and housing discrimination for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

If the Republican Party has a civil war in 2012, Huntsman may be laying down a marker.

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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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