SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Sen. Mike Lee endorsed former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. in the crowded Republican gubernatorial race, likely boosting Huntsman’s chances of being advanced to the June primary election ballot by delegates at the party’s state convention later this month.

“I have seen firsthand what a remarkable leader and a true conservative Jon Huntsman really is,” Lee said in a statement. “In moments when it would have been politically advantageous to abandon his values, he has stood strong in defense of the principles Utah Republicans hold dear.”

Lee, who served as general counsel in the Huntsman administration, said there’s “no doubt he is the right choice to lead Utah through these challenging times and beyond.” The state’s senior GOP senator said Huntsman has stood up for local control of public lands, fought federal overreach and “consistently defended the rights of the unborn.”

The news release from Huntsman’s campaign announcing the endorsement stated Lee “has a long-standing policy of not endorsing candidates in Utah primary races. However, the senator elected to make a rare exception because he feels strongly Gov. Huntsman is the clear choice for conservative Republican delegates and voters.”

Huntsman praised Lee’s efforts in the Senate.

“One of the best things I did as governor was to convince Mike to be a part of our team,” Huntsman said in a statement. “He’s doing a remarkable job representing Utah and fighting for conservative principles in the U.S. Senate, and I am honored to have his support.”

Huntsman, who is continuing to gather voter signatures to guarantee a place on the primary ballot, is one of eight candidates in the race for the Republican nomination — and one of seven competing at the April 25 Republican state convention that will be held virtually.

GOP delegates will choose up to two candidates to advance to the ballot from among Huntsman; Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox; former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes; businessman Jeff Burningham; Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton; former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright; and perennial candidate Jason Christensen.

Businesswoman Jan Garbett, the only Republican not vying for delegate support, also is still gathering voter signatures. So far, Cox and Wright are the only candidates who have submitted the 28,000 verified voter signatures required to qualify for the ballot.

As of Friday afternoon, Huntsman had more than 25,000 signatures verified, according to state Elections Director Justin Lee, with another 5,000 or so voter names turned in by the former governor’s campaign that still have to be reviewed.

Lisa Roskelley, Huntsman’s campaign manager, said more signatures are being collected and she’s confident the threshold will be met by the 5 p.m. Monday deadline. She said Huntsman is also campaigning for the support of party delegates.

“Gov. Huntsman has gone through the convention twice before successfully and respects that process,” she said. “That’s something he’s working very hard on and certainly, Mike Lee is someone who has the respect of many delegates and we’re grateful for his endorsement.”

She said, “their politics are actually much closer than people usually assume.”

Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics and Huntsman’s former economic development director, said Lee’s endorsement “does not come as a huge surprise. They had a very close working relationship when Mike Lee worked for him as his general counsel. They stayed close.”

Perry said the “endorsement is about more than just where they are individually on the political spectrum. It means that in spite of the fact that one is seen as more conservative than the other, both of them support their party.” He said there is “mutual respect” between Lee and Huntsman.

“This was not just an endorsement of political expediency, this is an endorsement that was earned over many, many years,” Perry said. “I don’t think current circumstances in the world are what tipped it over, nor do I think it was just difficulties in getting signatures early on for Gov. Huntsman.”

The endorsement, he said, “helps Gov. Huntsman at convention, without question. For the more conservative elements of the party who trust Sen. Mike Lee, it says a lot.”

Lee has always been popular with conservatives, typically drawing the loudest cheers at the GOP’s annual conventions. Huntsman has been criticized over the years by some in his party for stands he’s taken, including supporting civil unions while governor.

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Lee’s endorsement “is a high-profile way for Huntsman to solidify his standing with conservative voters and convention delegates, especially.”

Karpowitz said for “those voters worried about Huntsman’s ideological leanings, Lee’s statement, calling Huntsman a ‘true conservative,’ helps to alleviate them. Just as important, Lee’s endorsement didn’t go to any of the other candidates, including those whose strategies rely on winning conservative delegates at the convention.”

Cox’s campaign declined to comment on Lee’s endorsement. Cox and Huntsman have led in polling throughout the race to succeed Republican Gov. Gary Herbert, Huntsman’s former lieutenant governor. Herbert is not seeking reelection after more than a decade in office.

Other campaigns did weigh in.

“It will be interesting to see how Lee supporters and Huntsman voters react to this unlikely duo,” Winder Newton said.

Hughes said, “Sen. Lee is a loyal guy, so it does not surprise me that he is endorsing his former boss.”

Burningham said he has “a lot of respect for Sen. Lee and of course, I’m disappointed in his endorsement. To me, this highlights more than ever the importance of a leader who doesn’t come with all the political entanglements that all the other candidates in this race have. We need someone who doesn’t owe anybody anything and can make decisions based solely on what is best for the people of Utah.”

Garbett said the endorsement shows “how far Jon Huntsman Jr. will go to appease the right wing of the Republican Party, the convention delegates. ... I’m just thinking he’s playing to the delegates because he doesn’t have the signatures.”

Huntsman was elected governor twice but stepped down in 2009 to become U.S. ambassador to China under then-President Barack Obama. He ran for president in 2012 and later served as U.S. ambassador to Russia for President Donald Trump.

“Two of the most important relationships we have as a country are China and Russia,” Lee said. “To be trusted to stand up for the United States of America in both of those countries should tell you everything you need to know about Jon Huntsman.”

Lee said he knows how much Huntsman “is trusted by President Trump and I was very proud to see him answer the call to serve our country again.”