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Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman says he is as surprised as anyone to see Donald Trump's staying power atop the Republican presidential field, but it remains to be seen if he can temper his red meat message to appeal to a broader audience.
"I don't think anyone would have predicted it. If they say they had, they'd be lying to you," Huntsman said of Trump's resilience. "But he's speaking a language that connects with a lot of anxiety people feel out there, and he's doing it boldly and he's doing it unapologetically and he's doing it in ways that kind of represent the un-politician that people seem to be looking for this time around."
Huntsman, in an interview Wednesday before addressing a meeting of the state's World Trade Center, said that if Trump ultimately is the Republican nominee, Huntsman would support him for the White House.
"I'll back my party's nominee, whoever that is. That's generally what I do," said Huntsman, the former U.S. Ambassador to China who himself ran a short-lived bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
Asked specifically about Trump's criticism of Muslims and Mexicans he has called for a ban on allowing any Muslims into the country and has called immigrants from Mexico criminals and rapists Huntsman said the rhetoric is an attempt to appeal to a small base of voters in a bid for the nomination.
"This really is divisive commentary and it's designed at targeting voters in the early states. I suspect a lot of that language is going to change as he moves on beyond the [early] primary states," he said. "It will have to [change] for him to broaden his base and bring more people on board."
Whether Trump can make the pivot remains to be seen, the former Utah governor said, but he noted that the rhetoric on the campaign trail doesn't necessarily reflect where Trump has been on major issues.
Huntsman said when he was a candidate he refused to engage in the "red meat" rhetoric, although it is the norm in the nominating fight.
"It's typically what goes on and I didn't want to do that and I wouldn't do it. And you pay a price if you don't do it, but I figured if I did it, it would be disingenuous," he said.
Huntsman said he is remaining neutral in the jockeying for the Republican presidential nomination, although he has met with several of the candidates as part of the bipartisan No Labels group he helps lead as co-chairman.
The organization has received pledges from six candidates, including Trump, to choose a major issue facing the country and attack it in a bipartisan way within the first 30 days of the winner's presidency.
Huntsman said he expects one of the four remaining governors in the Republican field Ohio Gov. John Kasich, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to emerge as a contender, potentially finishing near the top in New Hampshire.
Kasich is polling second in the state.
Huntsman did not rule out possibly running for office again in the future, but "I don't get too caught up in that."
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