Kirk Johnson: Conservatism Still Dying in Utah

Western-based reporter Kirk Johnson is always hyper-alert for signs of conservative weakness. On Inauguration Day, he welcomed the fact that Oklahoma was beginning to repent from voting against Barack Obama.

Monday's "National Debate About the G.O.P. Plays Out on a Smaller Stage" marked Johnson's second trip to profile Utah's moderate Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman (in that initial March 14 story, Johnsonforesaw the death of conservative "orthodoxy" in Huntsman's repeal of a state liquor law.)

Johnson continues to foresee the death of traditional conservatism - unless of course, Utah "swerves right" in its upcoming gubernatorial election by electing "staunch conservative" Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, a hugely popular Republican from one of the nation's most conservative states, made waves and headlines in recent months by suggesting that his party would need to move toward the center to start winning national elections again.

With his support forPresident Obama's economicstimulus plan, his successful effort to ease the state's method of regulating liquor sales and his advocacy of civil unions to protect same-sex couples, Mr. Huntsman ignited a debate over what the Republican Partyhere should be.

Now he has been chosen by the president to be the next ambassador to China. But in exiting stage left, assuming Mr. Huntsman is confirmed by the Senate, he leaves the debate he began unfinished.

Conservative Republicans say the state party will stay right of center; Democrats agree and say they think voters will respond by looking for moderate alternatives in the mold of Mr. Huntsman - perhaps Republican, perhaps even Democratic.

Scholars say that Utah's demographic portrait is changing, especially with the fast growth of the Hispanic population, but that only time will tell where those changes go and how prescient Mr. Huntsman proved to be.

His would-be successor, Lt. Gov. Gary R. Herbert, is regarded as a staunch conservative and is already distancing himself from some of Mr. Huntsman's positions, including support for same-sex civil unions. Supporters say Mr. Herbert, who has said he will run in a special election next year to fill out the rest of Mr. Huntsman's second term, through 2012, will lead the party back to conservative orthodoxy. Other conservatives have said they may challenge him for the nomination if he does not.

"Conservatives are shouting from the rooftops," said Adam Brown, an instructor in political science atBrigham Young Universityin Provo.

But Democrats, in expressing their own hopes, are suggesting that Mr. Huntsman was right in his take on the demographic trends that are driving the electorate. They point to the drift away from the Republican brand in last fall's election by younger and first-time voters in Utah, and to the growing numbers of Hispanic voters, who tend to support Democrats. Mr. Herbert, they say - in tipping their hand about the likely tone of the next campaign season - is too conservative for the evolving, diverse, urbanized state that Utah is becoming.....Geography may also partly dictate whether Utah swerves right or follows Mr. Huntsman's playbook toward the center.