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Huntsman apparently hasn't ruled out run against Sen. Mike Lee

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. apparently hasn't ruled out a run against Sen. Mike Lee next year amid reports that Utah's junior senator is being targeted by some fellow Republicans.

CNN's John King said Sunday as part of the network's "Inside Politics" forecast that there's an effort underway to get Huntsman, who unsuccessfully sought the GOP presidential nomination in 2012, to take on Lee, a key figure in the tea party.

"I'm told several business leaders in the state —that's Utah — are now making a push to convince the former governor, Jon Huntsman, to mount a primary challenge to Mike Lee," King said.

King said "some national establishment players" are getting involved.

Politico reported in December that Zions Bank President Scott Anderson has privately commissioned polling on potential Lee challengers. Huntsman's father, Jon Huntsman Sr., was quoted by Politico as calling Lee an "embarrassment."

Huntsman did not respond to a request for comment, but several political insiders and business leaders in Utah reportedly have spoken with him about a possible run although, so far, he hasn't indicated his plans to them.

Lee's communications director, Brian Phillips, had no comment on the possibility of Huntsman getting in the race. Lee served as general counsel to Huntsman when Huntsman was governor.

"There is a connection there," Phillips said. "But if this is a story about who might run against him, we have no comment."

Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said that "it's no secret that many business groups and other individuals have had the sharp knives out for Mike Lee."

Jowers has been mentioned as a possible challenger to Lee, along with former Gov. Mike Leavitt, former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright, and Josh Romney, the son of the party’s former presidential nominee, Mitt Romney.

But Jowers said he is not actively considering a run. He said Huntsman, a former U.S. ambassador to China, would be "the gold standard and would be a very compelling candidate" in a primary election against Lee.

The Utah GOP is challenging a change in the law that allows candidates to bypass the state's unique caucus and convention system for nominating candidates, a system that helped Lee replace longtime GOP Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010.

Jowers said Huntsman is "always interested in service. I think he's also interested in the direction of the Republican Party. This would be, nationwide, the blockbuster Senate race of 2016 if he choses to enter it."

Lee had a 54 percent approval rating among Utah voters last fall, up from 43 percent a year earlier, when Lee helped lead a battle against President Barack Obama's health care law that resulted in a federal government shutdown.

He has been speaking around the country about the need for conservatives to advance an agenda aimed at appealing to the middle class, such as providing an increased tax credit for parents.

On Tuesday, Lee will appear at the Alta Club with national GOP pollster Frank Luntz, who is in Utah talking about the Republican Party's messaging for 2016. Luntz, who will also talk to Utah lawmakers, is not Lee's pollster, Phillips said.

Huntsman, who now lives in Washington, D.C. but purchased a condominium in downtown Salt Lake City several years ago, called Lee "brilliant" in a January interview with a conservative blogger.

"Mike has every good intention, and I say that because I worked with Mike," Huntsman said. "I don't know of too many people in the legislative branch who are as brilliant as Mike Lee, his understanding of the Constitution, his ability to legislate."

Huntsman is working with a number of groups, including the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan foreign policy think tank, and No Labels, a group promoting nonpartisanship, and has said he is not anticipating another presidential run in 2016.

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DNewsPolitics