SALT LAKE CITY — Former GOP presidential candidate and Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. announced in a magazine article he supports gay marriage and called for conservatives to take the lead on the issue.
"My marriage has been the greatest joy of my life," Huntsman wrote in an article dated Thursday in The American Conservative. "There is nothing conservative about denying other Americans the ability to forge the same relationship with the person they love."
Huntsman, who dropped out of last year's presidential race after a disappointing showing in the New Hampshire Republican primary, urged members of his party to push to legalize same-sex marriage in their states.
"The party of Lincoln should stand with our best tradition of equality and support full civil marriage for all Americans," Huntsman said, noting he is not seeking to force any religious group "to recognize relationships that run counter to their conscience."
Not only is that "the right thing to do," he said, it will also help the GOP make clear its support of limited government. "But the American people will not hear us out if we stand against their friends, family and individual liberty."
As governor, Huntsman stunned many Utahns by coming out in favor of civil unions. His declaration in the article that he backs same-sex marriages, however, was seen as less of a surprise.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, a state senator and the only openly gay member of the Legislature, said Huntsman stopped short of endorsing same-sex marriage at the Equality Utah Allies dinner last fall.
"We were hoping he would have evolved then. But it took a little longer," Dabakis said.
Huntsman's shift from supporting some to all of the benefits of marriage for gay couples will make him more popular among Democrats in the state, Dabakis said, but probably not Republicans.
"Jon Huntsman would make a great Democrat," he said.
Ally Isom, a spokeswoman for Gov. Gary Herbert, who served as lieutenant governor under Huntsman, issued a one-line statement in response to Huntsman’s article.
“Gov. Herbert supports traditional marriage between one man and one woman,” the statement said.
State GOP Chairman Thomas Wright referred questions about Huntsman's new stand to Joel Wright, an Orem attorney who served as a legislative director for the party in Utah County and was appointed by Huntsman to the Board of Regents.
Joel Wright said there aren't many Republicans willing to talk about Huntsman's support for gay marriage.
"If I was running for office, there is no way I would speak openly about this," he said.
But he said Huntsman's position is "very helpful" to Republicans "if we want to win a national election. If we don't, we can stand on principle." That's because it will attract younger voters to the GOP who are tired of the party's battles over social issues, Joel Wright said.
A former U.S. ambassador to China, Huntsman is now on the speaking circuit and a member of a conservative think tank, as well as several corporate boards. He is seen as a potential candidate for president in 2016.
Joel Wright said he isn't sure Huntsman's possible presidential bid will benefit from his stand. Huntsman has repeatedly challenged his party to be more moderate and focus more on fiscal responsibility.
"It should, but I don't know if it will," Joel Wright said. "I think Republicans under the age of 40 are very receptive. But donors and the people who vote are still the over-50 crowd."
A former political adviser to Huntsman labeled him “fiscally conservative and socially libertarian” and said the stance is an attempt to re-brand himself by making gay marriage a Republican issue. “He wants to own it,” said the adviser, who asked not to be named.
The news that Huntsman backs gay marriage is expected to help bring attention to the needs of Utah’s lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, Equality Utah Executive Director Brandie Balken said.
“If nothing else, this should stimulate some dialogue,” she said. Because Utah's Constitution was amended to ban gay marriage and similar relationships, Balken said the organization is focused on extending anti-discrimination protections for housing and employment.
Attempts to reach Huntsman were unsuccessful.