Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz, who worked for two years as a top aide to then-Gov. Jon Huntsman in Utah, is passing over his onetime boss to endorse former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in the 2012 Republican presidential primary.
In an interview, Chaffetz said he broke the news last week to Huntsman, who he said “will be very formidable in the future.”
“It was a little difficult,” Chaffetz said. “Jon Huntsman is a good man, but when your goal is to beat Barack Obama I just think Mitt Romney is in a much better position to do that. He’s laid this foundation for years. He’s got a wonderful organization, the ability to raise the type of money [needed]. And I just think he’s going to make a great president. I think we need that type business background to get our economy back in shape.”
A spokesman for Huntsman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The Republican congressman first joined Huntsman as a volunteer on his 2004 gubernatorial bid. A political novice, he was quickly made the campaign’s communications director and then ascended to campaign manager after eight weeks. After Huntsman was elected, Chaffetz served as his chief of staff during the first 11 months of the administration.
When Chaffetz resigned in November 2005 he cited his desire to go back to work in the private sector and spend more time with his family.
But on Tuesday Chaffetz said he left because Huntsman “made it clear it was kind of time to move on.”
“I think that was the best for both of us,” said Chaffetz, who insisted he did not have any hard feelings. “It was a great two years. I had a wonderful experience. Very grateful.”
Chaffetz’s deputy, Neil Ashdown, replaced him as Huntsman’s top aide in the governor’s office, then joined Huntsman in Beijing when he was appointed ambassador. Ashdown was recently made a top official in the Huntsman presidential campaign.
Chaffetz’s rebuff of Huntsman comes on the heels of what has been an uneven campaign debut for Huntsman. His official announcement speech drew a small crowd at a New Jersey waterfront park last month. Within 10 days Huntsman had raised $4.1 million — on par with Rep. Ron Paul and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who has been preparing for his bid for much longer. But a share of the money — less than half the total, according to a campaign official — came from Huntsman himself, who originally said he would not self-finance his campaign.
While Huntsman enjoyed high approval ratings as governor of Utah, Romney is viewed in the state as a beloved adopted son after his management of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. A poll in February by the Deseret News found that Utah voters favored Romney over Huntsman by a margin of 56% to 26%.
Romney also appears to have the edge among political officials in the state.
Sen. Orrin Hatch told the Herald Journal of Logan in February that he would back Romney. The Salt Lake Tribune reported in February that current Gov. Gary Herbert, who served as Huntsman’s lieutenant governor, was already committed to backing Romney, and that Sen. Mike Lee, who worked as Huntsman’s general counsel, was still on the fence.
Romney met with Lee at his Capitol Hill office last week.
“To have two people with ties to Utah in the race I think is thrilling to all of us, but Mitt Romney clearly has the broadest support here in Utah for his candidacy,” Chaffetz said. “Again, nothing against Jon Huntsman — we’re just huge fans of Mitt Romney.”
The Chaffetz endorsement is the latest salvo in a quiet but longstanding rivalry between the two men that first took root when Romney was tapped to take over the Olympics — a position that Huntsman’s father, a powerful chemical magnate, was pushing for his son. It surfaced again before the 2008 presidential race, when Huntsman abandoned his support for Romney to campaign for rivalJohn McCain.
But Chaffetz said he did not believe the upcoming primary fight was going to get personal.
“They are both professional,” he said. “Jon Huntsman, in particular, is not going to throw hard elbows. He’s very much a diplomat. I’d be shocked if he were to say or do something that he would regret later. He’s very disciplined that way. I don’t think its overly personal for him. And Mitt Romney has certainly been through the rigors of a campaign and the tough rhetoric that gets thrown around. He’s not going to say or do something silly. Both will come out as gentleman, I think, no matter what happens.”