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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: How will Huntsman, Utah fare without each other?

Jon Huntsman Jr. has ridden his Harley into the sunset. Gary Herbert is Utah's new chief executive. Questions remain about both men.

Will Huntsman ever return to Utah and be a factor in politics?

Pignanelli: "Voters are weird." — Tucker Carlson, MSNBC senior correspondent. Last month, the Deseret News reviewed the polling results of LDS voters by the prestigious Pew Center for Religion and Politics. The extensive survey confirmed "most Latter-day Saints are conservative and most are Republicans." The overall conclusion is that Mormons are "considerably more Republican and conservative than any other major religious tradition, including members of the evangelical Protestant churches."

Last week, this paper released a Dan Jones survey documenting 88 percent of Republicans approve of Jon Huntsman's performance as governor, and 70 percent of these "conservative Republicans" will vote for Huntsman again. (Needless to say, Huntsman is wildly popular with local Democrats.)

Apparently, Utah LDS voters are proud of a political ideology hard right from the center. Yet these "conservative Mormon Republicans" adore candidates that openly support gay rights, aggressive environmental policies, flexible liquor laws and immigrants concerns and who publicly attack their national GOP leaders in the media. Notwithstanding his positions on controversial issues, Huntsman will be popular with Utahns for a long time. However, once his stint in China is over, many expect him to move onto other positions of diplomacy in the federal government or with global organizations.

Webb: A more important question than whether Huntsman will return is whether he will take his Harley to China. As the Chinese people see him roaring around Beijing, it will be a nice conversation ice breaker with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

I doubt Huntsman will ever seek another Utah political office. Certainly some ambassadors and Cabinet members return to their home states and run for the U.S. Senate. But I think it's more likely that Huntsman will return from China and begin laying the groundwork for a presidential bid.

He has the money, connections and ambition to play at that level. And even if he's not a realistic presidential candidate, he could be a good prospect for vice president, and running for president is the best way to be picked up as a running mate.

It's impossible to know if Huntsman will be in China for three years, seven years or whatever, and whether he will be a success or failure. It's also hard to maintain a political profile as an ambassador. Ambassadors don't get a lot of headlines, and they're very careful about what they say. So just how good a launching pad this may be remains to be seen.

But it will be fun seeing Ambassador Huntsman ride his Harley on the Great Wall of China and through the Forbidden City.

Will Gov. Gary Herbert govern as a conservative or a moderate?

Herbert is a conservative, but he will govern as a reasonable centrist, in the tradition of Utah governors, and will be accessible and listen to Utahns of all ideologies.

Herbert will take more traditional conservative positions on social and environmental issues than did Huntsman, but Herbert won't be out of the mainstream.

Pignanelli: If he is a "Utah conservative" (see above), then we are in good shape. For all our sake, he must ignore the extremists. A recent Deseret News survey indicates that one third of Utahns believe the idiotic allegation that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. (Note to these "birthers": Elvis is dead, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, and wearing aluminum foil hats will not prevent the aliens from reading your thoughts.) The new Utah Republican Party chairman, Dave Hansen, is a shrewd, level-headed pragmatist who can help Herbert with the party faithful while his administration is adopting practical policies. This selection of Sen. Greg Bell for lieutenant governor and Jason Perry for chief of staff indicates a moderate and competent direction. Our sources tell us that Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon is giving serious consideration to a gubernatorial bid for next year — and he will be a strong contender. Herbert's best defense is to stay away from ideology and focus on results.

What issues should Herbert tackle in his first 100 days?

Pignanelli: Herbert is facing a slipping local economy and state budget nightmare. State leaders must utilize technology and best practices to maximize the efficiency of government services with limited dollars. Another priority is innovative programs to assist local business and industries and retain Utah employment.

Webb: I like politicians who think big and take on tough issues. He should tackle meaningful tax reform that would position Utah for the future and help stabilize state revenue by broadening the sales tax base to include services, restore the sales tax on food and cut the overall sales tax rate (or cut other taxes), so the reform is revenue-neutral. The trend has been to narrow the tax base, and that should be reversed.

Herbert should also eliminate the weird four-day workweek, expand charter schools and move state-based health- care reform along faster.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and a Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a Utah state tax commissioner. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.