What candidate wouldn't want a big event associated with his name, attended by the LDS Church president and other notables and broadcast by media the day before the Republican gubernatorial primary?

Jon Huntsman Jr. will have just that on June 21, the day before the June 22 state GOP governor's primary, in which Huntsman will face Board of Regents chairman Nolan Karras.

"I don't ascribe an ulterior motive to this" event's timing, Karras said. "It is just part and parcel to running against the Huntsmans."

Huntsman Cancer Institute/Hospital spokeswoman Shelley Thomas said there were "no political discussions at all" when the date for the dedication of the new $100 million-plus hospital was first discussed 18 months ago.

The 50-bed hospital is named after Jon Huntsman Sr. and his wife, Karen, who have given or pledged $125 million for the equipment and building, located next to the current Huntsman Cancer Institute, which the billionaire family also helped fund.

Huntsman Jr., as a family member, will be invited to the event. But for now, the candidate is not on the agenda to speak or sit on the platform during talks by LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley (a Huntsman family friend), Sen. Orrin Hatch and others, Thomas said.

"But the final agenda has not been set," Thomas added.

In any case, it's likely the Huntsman name will appear as local media outlets carry the hospital's dedication that Monday night on TV newscasts and in the local morning newspapers on primary election day.

Former University of Utah president Bernie Machin suggested the dedication date, according to Thomas.

"I don't think Jon Jr. was even running for governor when the dedication day (Huntsman Sr.'s 67th birthday) was chosen by Bernie," she said.

The hospital actually is finished and will be open for public tours for a week before being shut down, sterilized and reopened for the first patients in early July, Thomas added.

Jon Huntsman Jr.'s campaign could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

"It's nonsense for anyone to say there is a connection" between the hospital dedication date and the GOP primary, said Stephen Prescott, executive director of the cancer institute. "Bernie and I suggested this day to Jon Sr. in December 2002, as an honor to him on his birthday, and I have a letter finalizing it from June 2003. I didn't know then when this primary was and wouldn't have cared if I did."

Karras said the Huntsman family is "doing wonderful things with this hospital and cancer center. My word, what a great contribution this is to our community."

But that doesn't make it any easier for the former legislative leader from Roy to overcome a significant disadvantage in name identification and financial resources.

"Let's assume the date is an accident," Karras said. "It shows it's hard to run against this powerful family. I say let's compare resumes, not just names."

A Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates last week shows Huntsman Jr. leads Karras 58-19 percent among all registered voters, 63-20 percent among Republicans and 64-20 percent among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Meanwhile, Huntsman Jr. issued a statement Tuesday saying he will appear in five debates with Karras between now and primary election day. Four of the debates will be TV appearances.

That's fewer than Karras wants.

Karras notes that up through the May 8 state GOP convention, the eight Republican candidates for governor, including Gov. Olene Walker, appeared in nine public debates and perhaps a dozen other joint appearances, so interested citizens from around the state had a chance to hear and meet the candidates.

Those events didn't include the 29 county Republican Party conventions in April. Most of the candidates made the majority of those conventions, as well.

But at many of those multi-candidate events, "you maybe got two minutes total" to talk in the crowded field, says Karras.

A dozen or so debates between just him and Huntsman Jr. would give Utahns a much better picture of the men's ideas and accomplishments before the June primary, Karras added.

"We'd like to debate in every corner of the state. I've agreed to attend seven more" events, beyond the five debates, that could be debates if Huntsman Jr. would show up, he said.

"I don't have the name I.D. my opponent has. I want people to hear us to see what I'm about," Karras said. "Let people evaluate us in face-to-face discussions."


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com