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Guv draws scrutiny over stance on civil unions

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As a controversial pro-marriage ad stirs debate among Republicans across the country, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s support for civil unions is again attracting national attention — but not all of it favorable.

Huntsman, featured in Frank Rich's column in the New York Times Sunday about a shift in sentiment among conservatives toward same-sex marriage, was labled "not even a flash in the pan" by one traditional marriage advocate.

"We must embrace all citizens as equals," Rich quoted Huntsman as telling him in a recent interview. "I've always stood tall on this." The columnist described the GOP governor's position as "seemingly indistinguishable" from that held by Democratic President Barack Obama.

"Huntsman is not some left-coast Hollywood Republican," Rich pointed out to his readers. "He's a Mormon presiding over what Gallup (a polling company) ranks as the reddest state in the country."

His column, titled "The Bigots' Last Hurrah," criticized a new 60-second ad called "The Gathering Storm," produced by the National Organization for Marriage.

The New Jersey-based organization announced on its Web site the ad is part of a $1.5 million campaign launched in early April to bring viewers "face to face with the growing religious liberty threat posed by same-sex marriage." It has been parodied on YouTube as well as on Comedy Central's "Colbert Report."

The head of the organization, Princeton University professor Robert George, told the Deseret News that Huntsman's supposed presidential ambitions aren't being helped by his stand on gay rights because the attention won't last.

"He's not even a flash in the pan. There's no flash," George said. "Right now, there's just one thing interesting about him, that he's a Utah LDS governor who seems to be leaning in the liberal direction on marriage issues."

That position, George said, earned Huntsman "a pat on the head from Frank Rich" because it enabled the columnist to "say something nice about (Huntsman) in the context of saying something nasty about pro-marriage people, including the LDS Church."

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints deserves credit, George said, for being "a leading force in the nation in defense of the institution of marriage and the family" despite efforts at intimidation.

The LDS Church is not helping to fund the National Organization for Marriage, George said, but is represented on the board by author and Mormon Times columnist Orson Scott Card. Rich noted in his column that the son of a member of the Quorum of the Twelve of the LDS Church had stepped down from the board, a reference to Utah Valley University President Matthew Holland.

Huntsman spokeswoman Lisa Roskelley said, "The governor doesn't take a position in an effort to gain attention. He takes a position because he feels it's the best public policy and the right thing to do. That holds true with this position as it does with all positions he takes."

It wasn't until February, during the 2009 Legislature that Huntsman came out in favor of civil unions as well as legislation intended to give same-sex and other non-traditional couples some of the rights available through marriage.

His comments frustrated many in his party, especially conservative Republican legislators. Not only did some speak out forcefully in favor of traditional marriage, they also defeated the bills backed by Huntsman, called the "Common Ground" legislation.

"There's a big debate internally within the Republican Party right now — do we want to move to the middle to pick up some lost ground, or do we move back to our core principles?" said state GOP vice chairman Todd Weiler. "I think on a local level, Republicans want to stay with our core values. We never left them."

State Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland said Huntsman's statements have helped raise public awareness of the issues surrounding gay couples and "probably added to some open-mindedness," even among the minority party.

"As awareness nationally increases, and the Republican Party has leaders like Huntsman, yes, it will probably bring even moderate to conservative Democrats to what looks to be becoming the mainstream of this issue," Holland said.

Huntsman can expect a personal thanks for the opinions he expressed in Rich's column from Equality Utah's Will Carlson, who is scheduled to meet with the governor on Tuesday.

"Gov. Huntsman has always established himself as fair-minded," Carlson said. "So I'm pleased, but not surprised."

E-MAIL: lisa@desnews.com