SALT LAKE CITY — Sen. John McCain had a big impact on former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., now the U.S. ambassador to Russia, who stunned Utah's political establishment by endorsing McCain over Mitt Romney in the 2008 presidential race.
"Aside from my own dad, there’s been no one more impactful in my life," Huntsman told the Deseret News from Moscow after initially declining to comment on his relationship with the Arizona senator, who died Saturday after battling brain cancer.
"It was the highest honor to associate with him. He was a mentor in many ways. Country first and bipartisanship were deeply ingrained due to his influence," Huntsman said of his longtime friend.
He also said that his two sons, Jon Huntsman III and Will, are graduates of the U.S. Naval Academy and active duty naval officers "in no small part due to John’s early influence."
McCain, a Navy fighter pilot who was shot down and a POW for years during the Vietnam War, followed his own father into the Navy. Huntsman's father, the late billionaire philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr., served as a U.S. Navy officer.
"There has been no greater mentor to my husband aside from his own dad than John McCain," Huntsman's wife, Mary Kaye, posted on Instagram with a photo of Huntsman and McCain.
Huntsman and McCain "had a sweet conversation before his passing that always will be cherished," she wrote Sunday. The Huntsmans have been invited to attend services for McCain, being held in the Washington National Cathedral on Sept. 1.
It is not clear if the Huntsmans will be able to make the trip, but their daughter, Abby, soon to be a panelist on ABC's "The View" alongside her close friend, McCain's daughter, Meghan, is expected to attend.
Former Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, who both ran against McCain for president, are expected to speak at the service. But President Donald Trump, who appointed Huntsman to the high-profile ambassadorship, won't be there.
Those close to McCain said in May that the senator wanted Vice President Mike Pence at his funeral, not Trump. Pence will speak at a U.S. Capitol ceremony honoring McCain on Friday and other members of the administration will attend the funeral.
The president and fellow Republican McCain have long been at odds, with Trump declaring that McCain, a Navy pilot, was not a war hero despite his time as a POW and initially declining to praise the senator's legacy after his death.
McCain was one of the president's toughest critics in Congress, calling Trump's joint news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki "one of the most disgraceful performances by an American president in memory."
Mary Kaye Huntsman joined her husband in saying in her Instagram post that "it was the highest of honors for our family to campaign" for McCain in 2008, with Jon Huntsman as a national co-chairman.
"Many lessons of life and politics from that experience," she wrote.
In 2006, Huntsman endorsed McCain for president, saying they shared opinions on important issues, like immigration and the war in Iraq. Earlier that year, McCain had brought Huntsman along to Iraq to meet with the troops.
Romney, now the GOP nominee in the U.S. Senate race for the seat held by retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, was the overwhelming favorite in Utah when Huntsman made what he said was a decision to "reflect a little bit of diversity"in Utah.
Longtime Huntsman friend Lew Cramer, a founder of the World Trade Center Utah, said Huntsman likely met McCain during his early years of government service, including as U.S. ambassador to Singapore under then-President George H.W. Bush.
Cramer said Huntsman probably "interacted with the young, dynamic Sen. McCain because McCain was a huge influence on many of us at that time, as war hero, maverick legislator and overall D.C. dynamo."
He said that he was "presuming Jon was under the same spell of McCain's magic."
Mary Kaye Huntsman's Instagram post said McCain's "early influence on our two sons no doubt helped play a role in their decision to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and pursue military careers."
When Huntsman was nominated by Obama to be U.S. ambassador to China at the start of his second term as Utah governor, McCain joined the state's two senators in formally introducing Huntsman at his Senate confirmation hearing.
But when Huntsman ran for president in 2012, McCain backed Romney, who became the Republican Party's nominee. The endorsement came shortly before the New Hampshire primary that Huntsman had built his campaign around winning.
The theme of Huntsman's campaign, which ended shortly after his loss in New Hampshire to Romney, echoed McCain's 2008 call to put "country first," above partisanship.
After McCain was diagnosed with a brain tumor in July, Huntsman tweeted that McCain "has been a mentor and a true American hero. His fighting spirit, which has always put country first, will empower him."