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As he leaves office, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. is advising his replacement to stand up to the "most intemperate, intolerant voices" who, even though they tend to be the loudest, don't speak for the majority of Utahns.

It is easy to mistake the calls from the "self-appointed arbiters of morality and virtue, who are the loudest, providing a lot of the cacophony that tends to consume our political dialogue," as the voice of the people. But that is wrong, Huntsman said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune .

"You step into this office, you fill these shoes and a new reality emerges and that is you've got 2.7 million Utahns who don't have a lobbyist, who don't have a special interest representative, who just want good, competent, ethical leadership, and they've got voices that matter," Huntsman said.

"People who raise families and pay bills and send their kids to school," he said. "They're the ones who, in this job, you need to look out for. They're the ones I've tried to listen to."

Huntsman, who leaves next week to become the U.S. ambassador to China, said he left Herbert the advice in a letter that, per tradition, is in the governor's ceremonial desk -- which was fashioned from a tree that fell during a tornado that swept past the Capitol a decade ago.

Herbert will inherit that desk when he becomes Utah's 17th chief executive today.

Sitting in an office stripped of books and artwork -- save for some Chinese artwork and a painting of defunct Bill and Nada's Café that will make the trip to China -- Huntsman said he has no regrets as he leaves the governorship more than three years early.

"This is a job where, when you look back, if you were able to accomplish a few big things you've got to feel a sense of satisfaction," he said. "Then if you were able to get the state on track in pursuit of additional big issues, that will also provide additional satisfaction, which is I think where we are."

He said he was glad to have been able to repeal part of the state sales tax on food and would like to have seen through the removal of the remainder of the tax, as well as the completion of health care reform, which is in the works, and the achievement of some of the state's goals for renewable energy production.

"It would be nice to be around to see some of that come to fruition," he said, but he believes he leaves Utah on a positive trajectory.

Huntsman said two instances will remain with him from his time as governor.

One was when he arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan, to visit Utah National Guard troops the day after 2nd Lt. Scott Lundell was killed. The governor eulogized Lundell before several hundred Guard members, then collected Lundell's personal belongings and personally delivered them to Lundell's widow and their four children.

"Standing on that front porch and handing them over was just a moment that created an indelible memory in my mind, but it also taught me the lessons about courage and sacrifice and families that deal with the realities of war," he said. "When you stare that down, you're staring down the deepest level of suffering that can be imposed on the human experience."

Huntsman said he will also remember visiting the House of Hope, where he met with women whose lives has been "shipwrecked" by methamphetamine addiction.

You learn a lot about the resiliency of the human soul. You learn a lot about the fragility of families," he said. "As I walk out the door I'm going to remember two or three of those examples. They're going to live on forever because they were so deeply imbedded in my memory banks."

Huntsman will leave Utah on Monday, spending a few days in briefings at the headquarters of the military's Pacific Command at Pearl Harbor before arriving in China, where he will present his credentials to Chinese President Hu Jintao to be recognized as ambassador.

Until then, Huntsman cannot officially discuss specific issues with China, but he said that his overarching goal in the new position is to try to "forge a relationship that transcends the periodic challenges you know we're going to have."

"The question is if we can maintain a working relationship and a civil dialogue that allows us to do the business of the world, which it is all about," he said.

"A lot of people benefit from the results or suffer from failure, so it's how you tee up that dialogue now that we're beginning kind of a new relationship that will allow us to transcend the pitfalls."

It remains to be seen how long he stays in China, with at least part of that equation hinging on the outome of the 2012 presidential election. Huntsman no longer owns a home in Utah -- the family sold its house during his first term -- and most of his children have moved away from the state.

The Huntsmans own a condominium along the beach in Coronado, Calif. -- near the stretch where Sen. John McCain, whom Huntsman backed in the 2008 presidential contest, owns a similar condominium.

Huntsman said he was born in the Navy hospital nearby and he has two sons who plan on joining the Navy -- one will start at Annapolis next year -- and may train at the base near the California residence.

It's an area, he said, where the family went to make big decisions and where his sister-in-law's ashes were spread after she died of cancer, so it remains a touchstone for the family.

But, Huntsman said, he ultimately expects that he will return to Utah and be involved in public service in some capacity.

Although he said he is a "lousy politician," he did not rule out running for office again. While Huntsman was laying the groundwork to form a national political action committee before he was nominated to serve in China, he said his emergence as what some saw as a national spokesman for the Republican Party happened by chance and because there was a void in leadership at the national level.

"There's still a vacuum and I think there will be until such time as we turn as a party to ideas and solutions that come from the states that represent practical public policy fixes to things like health care, things like the environment, things like education. Talk only goes so far," he said. "I'm waiting for the right Republicans to emerge who are connected to the kind of solutions this country is looking for longer term. It will happen, but it's going to take time."

What's next:

Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert will be sworn in as the state's 17th chief executive at a Utah State Capitol ceremony at noon, after Jon Huntsman Jr. steps down as Utah's governor.