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One of Gary Herbert's assignments as lieutenant governor was promoting emergency preparedness, urging Utahns to be ready for anything.

Now, Utahns will get a chance to see if Herbert is ready.

As the Utah County Republican takes the state's helm Tuesday from Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., he will inherit a daunting set of challenges, foremost a state budget gushing red ink and an economy trying to find its feet like a punch-drunk boxer.

"We're taking over, as luck would have it, at one of the most challenging times in our state's history," Herbert says, "certainly in the last 25 years, if not since the Great Depression."

It is, without question, a radically different circumstance than Huntsman, who is becoming U.S. ambassador to China, inherited when he took office in 2005.

"If you look at the transition from Gov. Huntsman, who came in with all-time record surpluses," says House Speaker David Clark, R-Santa Clara, "and now we're coming in with what clearly has been, since the Depression, the longest, the deepest, the most severe financial challenge facing the state, I think the beginning periods of these two governorships have vastly different challenges ahead of them."

As Clark likes to say, calm seas don't make good sailors. "We're going to very quickly find out what kind of sailor Gov. Herbert is going to be."

Herbert says he is up to the job, honing his skills in business as a real-estate agent, through 14 years as a Utah County commissioner, as head of the Utah Association of Counties and, for the past 4½ years, learning the ropes as the state's second in command.

"I'm comfortable in assuming the role of governor," he says, "... in large part because this is not my first time around the block."

Also unlike Huntsman, who had the luxury of being elected and having four years to prove himself in the job, Herbert comes to the position by chance, with just months, perhaps even weeks, to stake his claim to the office before challengers emerge.

Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce President Lane Beattie has opted not to run for governor as has U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, the top Democratic prospect.

"Either they know something we don't about Herbert's strength, politically, or he's getting awful lucky," says Quin Monson, associate director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.

Herbert is not to be underestimated. He ran for governor in 2004 and has spent years preparing for a 2012 bid, traveling to all corners of the state, meeting GOP delegates at county conventions and other gatherings. Now, because of a recent change to the Utah Constitution, his election date has been moved up to 2010.

Several are giving the race serious consideration. State Sen. John Valentine is weighing a run for the seat as is Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinckley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah. Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon is being urged to join the race on the Democratic side. And Clark also has not ruled out a bid.

"I want to see a very strong Republican governor lead this state," Clark says. "I've offered my support to Gary Herbert and until there's a reason for that support to be ... turned away, that's the direction I will pursue."

Herbert says that getting elected is not an immediate concern.

"If I govern appropriately and correctly, the election aspect of 2010 will really take care of itself," he says. "What people are going to look at is: Does he govern correctly? Is he the leader we need to have in the Governor's Office? So as we take on these difficult tasks and challenges, that's the most important thing."

While Herbert inherits budget turmoil, he also gets to lay claim to having served alongside a governor with an 80-plus-percent approval rating. It remains to be seen how much of the Huntsman legacy he retains.

"No two people are exactly alike. There are always going to be differences around the edges," Huntsman said in May. "But on the big issues of the day, where do people come down? And I think, in this case, people will find that consistency and continuity will be on display."

Already, Herbert has stepped away from Huntsman's stances on climate change and civil unions. At the same time, in picking Sen. Greg Bell, R-Fruit Heights, as his No. 2, Herbert gave a nod to the party's moderates -- too much for some, like The Sutherland Institute's Paul Mero, who says the Bell choice could cost Herbert his election and adds that Herbert shouldn't be afraid to be his own man.

"If he wants to maintain his core conservatism, he does have to abandon certain Huntsman ideas, and yet I'm sure there are associates around Gary who are encouraging him to continue to embrace Huntsman's ideas because of Huntsman's popularity," Mero says. "He needs to be careful not to run from his homegrown identity. He needs to be real. He needs to just be who he is, and he'll be fine."

Who he is, say those who know Herbert, is a hard-working, hands-on manager, who delves into the nitty-gritty of an issue. He lacks Huntsman's charisma, but isn't concerned about his approval rating.

"He's less of a guy that's going to buy into popular movements," says Rep. Craig Frank, R-Cedar Hills. "He'll take a much more cautious and pragmatic approach to his tenure as governor."

House Minority Leader David Litvack, D-Salt Lake City, says he hopes Democrats will find an open door and open mind when dealing with Herbert.

"The characteristic you want is someone who is willing to listen and consider different points of view, and Gov. Herbert has that reputation," Litvack says. "That's been my experience with him, and I personally feel, with the minority party, we can be successful in that type of environment."

But low-income advocate Linda Hilton, with the Coalition of Religious Communities, says she is "expecting a huge move to the right."

She worries that progress her group made on hate-crimes legislation may be undone and is dismayed that Herbert has refused to make available $2 million in stimulus money to help 500 poor, disabled Utahns stay in their homes.

"We are worrying not about if some of our clients are going to die before the end of the year, but when and how many are going to die before the end of the year," she warns. "That's a very unfortunate way for Herbert to start his administration. It would sort of be blood on his hands, and that's unfortunate for everyone involved."

Monson says the battered budget will force Herbert to make tough choices -- raise taxes, which he sees as unlikely, or make hard cuts. Herbert says he plans to do what he can with the hand he has been dealt.

"Many things that happen in politics are serendipity," Herbert says. "You inherit what you inherit, and you do the best you can with what you've got. And I'm going to do the best I can with whatever God-given talent I have and move the state forward."

What's next

Jon Huntsman Jr. will step down as Utah's governor Tuesday. Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert then will be sworn in as the state's 17th chief executive at a noon Utah Capitol ceremony. Huntsman was confirmed by the U.S. Senate last week to serve as the Obama administration's ambassador to China.