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In the days after he was nominated as U.S. ambassador to China, congratulations poured in to former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., including one from Bob Page, a North Carolina businessman.

"I write to thank you for your leadership and outspoken support of civil legal recognition for same-sex couples," wrote Page, who is raising twin sons he and his partner adopted from Vietnam.

"I have been deeply offended by attempts to scapegoat gays and lesbians in an effort to turn out voters," Page wrote. "I appreciate more than I can say your courageous recognition that this serves no productive purpose."

The ambassador nominee jotted a handwritten note to Page, thanking him for his kind support.

"Let's hope that someday — all people are seen as equal under the laws of our land. With very best wishes — Jon."

Huntsman drew national attention in 2009 with his public support for civil unions and other rights for same-sex couples — a sharp break from the Republican orthodoxy, especially in conservative Utah.

Now, as the former governor moves closer to a bid for the presidency, his civil-unions stance poses a unique challenge and potential liability in the Republican primary landscape.

"Candidly, I think he'd be crucified for his stand by the extreme religious right," said Page, the CEO of Replacements Ltd., a company specializing in replacing china and glassware. "You're talking about politicians."

Connie Mackey, president of the Family Research Council political-action committee, the political arm of the influential, socially conservative organization, said she sees civil unions as "an easy way around the issue" and points to the support that ballot measures banning gay marriage have garnered as evidence of public opposition to same-sex marriage.

"The bottom line is, the recognition of marriage as anything but between one man and one woman is not acceptable," Mackey said. "I can say unequivocally for the Family Research Council, for the National Organization for Marriage, for a lot of these organizations, it's a deal-breaker for them."

Several polls in recent months have indicated that a majority of Americans now support same-sex marriage.

A CNN poll last month, for example, suggested 51 percent of Americans say that same-sex marriages should be legally recognized, the first time the poll had registered majority support, and backing in other polls has been significantly higher for civil unions.

But the CNN poll indicated that 71 percent of Republicans in the poll opposed legal recognition of gay marriages.

Rob Wasinger, who ran Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback's 2008 presidential run and is volunteering to do outreach to conservative groups, said that "social conservatives are looking for a candidate with Governor Huntsman's record."

"Governor Huntsman believes marriage is between a man and a woman, and his position on marriage and civil unions is identical to that of President George W. Bush," Wasinger said.

It was early in 2009 when Huntsman made news, telling The Salt Lake Tribune that he supported civil unions and legislation that aimed at preventing discrimination based on sexual identity and guaranteeing hospital visitation and other limited rights to same-sex couples.

The night the news broke, Reed Cowan's phone rang in Miami: "We want you to know this is because of our interaction with you."

The call was from first lady Mary Kaye Huntsman, whom Cowan had met five years earlier and with whom he had formed a close friendship.

"Now I can't imagine we're their only gay friends," said Cowan, who, at the time, was directing his documentary, "8: The Mormon Proposition," about the church's role in banning gay marriage in California. "I wouldn't be so arrogant to think this is all because of us, but that's what she told me, and that means a lot."

Cowan, a former Salt Lake City television reporter, met Jon and Mary Kaye Huntsman during the campaign in 2004 at an event hosted by Equality Utah and began working on her charity, The Power In You, aimed at building youth self-esteem.

He became a featured speaker, produced programs and wrote the theme song, but he kept his sexual orientation secret from the Huntsmans until the night before the organization's biggest gala. Cowan decided it was unfair to his partner, Greg Abplanalp, to hide their relationship, but coming out would be a liability, so he sent an email resigning from the organization.

"I kid you not, my phone began to ring every 10 minutes, and it rang for hours," Cowan said. "The voice mail said: This is Mary Kaye, and you will be there tonight and so will Greg and so will [Cowan's son] Wesley, and not only will you be there, you will speak, and not only will you speak, you will sit on the front row with our entire family. We love you, and you are part of this organization."

Cowan and Abplanalp were anxious when they attended the gala, but when the governor saw them, Huntsman and his family cut across the room.

"I went to shake his hand … and he said, 'Not tonight,' and he pushed my hand aside and embraced me in front of everybody, then Mary Kaye and his daughters. … Then he said [to Greg], 'I need to know this man.' "

When Wesley Cowan died in a tragic playground accident days later, Huntsman cleared his schedule and officiated at the boy's funeral.

When Huntsman took his stand on civil unions, Cowan said he called local gay leaders and pressed them to organize a candlelight vigil at the governor's mansion as a show of support.

"When someone gives you a gift," he said, "you say thank you."

But the governor was reviled in conservative Republican circles. Utah legislators groused about his liberal comments and their timing — just a few months after his re-election.

In Michigan, the Kent County Republican Party dumped Huntsman as a speaker at its party fundraiser, with the chairman saying, "Voters want and expect us to stand on principle and return to our roots."

"Presumably, he is testing the waters [for a presidential run], and we hope he realizes now the waters in Michigan will be hazardous to someone who endorses the homosexual activist political agenda," said Gary Glenn, director of the Campaign for Michigan Families, at the time.

Now, two years later, Huntsman is again testing the presidential waters, and his views on civil unions are commonly mentioned — along with having worked as an ambassador in the Obama administration and his belief in climate change — as a stumbling block, should he run.

Doug Gross, a former Iowa GOP chairman who campaigned for President George W. Bush and, in 2008, for Mitt Romney, said he doesn't expect Huntsman's stand to play well with caucusgoers in the state.

"About 60 percent of the likely caucusgoers are social conservatives, and while that doesn't mean those are their primary issues, they want their candidates to be good on those issues," Gross said. "An economic conservative will win it, but they have to be OK on the social issues as well."

If Huntsman skips Iowa, as he may well do, New Hampshire could be more hospitable turf, but candidates will be grilled on the marriage issue, said Michael Dennehy, who led Arizona Sen. John McCain's efforts in the Granite State in 2000 and 2008.

Republicans have legislation pending to repeal New Hampshire's law allowing gay marriage, and the debate, Dennehy said, will come in January, when GOP hopefuls are flocking to the state. But Dennehy doesn't see civil unions as a big obstacle for them.

"Generally speaking, I think most Republicans are now in favor of civil unions," Dennehy said. "I don't see that as much of a deal-breaker in New Hampshire, or nationally. I just think the battleground for gay-rights issues today is with marriage and not civil unions."

R. Clarke Cooper, executive director of the national Log Cabin Republicans, agrees, and thinks primary voters don't want to be torn apart over civil unions and marriage equality.

"There's a shift that's happening across the political spectrum in general, and it's happening within the Republican ranks as well," Cooper said. "There's a big difference between 2011 and 10 years ago. … A Jon Huntsman may not be so much anathema as he may have been in the previous election cycle."

Twitter: @RobertGehrke Read the letters between Bob Page and then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.(pdf): Listen to the interview with Reed Cowan about his relationship with Jon and Mary Kaye Huntsman: