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Jon Huntsman Jr. may not have excited the Republican base this year as he sought to become his party's presidential nominee, but among Envision Utah colleagues Monday the popular two-term governor and former U.S. Ambassador to China enjoyed star status.

Huntsman spoke to about 280 people at the 2012 Corporate Friends Breakfast, the kick-off event to celebrate the 15-year anniversary of Envision Utah, a volunteer organization that launched in 1997 to help chart Utah's future course. In 1999, Huntsman replaced Robert Grow to serve as the organization's second chairman.

Huntsman on Monday praised the town-hall approach that the group has used to gather input from everyday Utahns about what kind of state they hope to preserve for their children and grandchildren as the population along the Wasatch Front is projected to swell to 5 million people by 2050.

He also spoke lightheartedly about the brutal GOP campaign that has now spanned many months and chewed through several candidates to land on Mitt Romney as the presumptive nominee.

"I knew we would be hobbled right at the beginning of the campaign when my better half, Mary Kaye, said, 'If you pander and if you sign any of those darn pledges, I will leave you,' " Huntsman said to vigorous applause. Several candidates during the campaign signed agreements with various groups to support reforms or causes.

It got worse, Huntsman said, when noted Democrats went public and described him as a Republican they could support. The New York Times labeled him as a moderate with significant foreign policy experience.

In January Huntsman shut down his campaign, which included 1,000 town hall meetings, calling it an experience "we wouldn't have traded for anything."

"At the end you're reminded that communities matter and communities are the strength and sustenance of who we are."

He still has many fans in Utah.

"I followed everything you were doing," said Natalie Gochnour, a self-described political junkie and executive vice president of policy and communication for the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.

"There are about 2.8 million Utahns, and every one of us is so proud of your eloquence, your smarts, your willingness to be pragmatic and to find common ground," Gochnour said.

Looking ahead, Huntsman said a well-educated populace and sustainable, livable communities will be key to Utah meeting the demands of the 21st century. However, the country's debt could shipwreck future generations, he warned.

"If we don't get our act together here, folks, we're going to see the end of the American century by 2050."

twitter: @catmck —

Envision Utah mileposts:

1997 • The civic engagement process begins

More than 50,000 • The number of Utahns who have participated in 43 visioning efforts

EU vision • Walkable, sustainable communities connected by mass transit network

About 100 regions, 14 countries • Groups influenced by the EU model

$185 million • Amount spent by the state to acquire 175 miles of railroad right of ways

5 light-rail TRAX lines • Installed along Wasatch Front by 2010

5 more light-rail TRAX lines • Will be finished by 2015

Commuter rail • Will connect Ogden to Provo by December 2012

Source: Envision Utah

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