SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Gov. Olene Walker's political future was on the line Saturday as state Republicans opened a convention to narrow a field of eight candidates or endorse a nominee for her job.
Walker, Utah's first woman governor, has served barely seven months. She entered the convention challenged by seven rivals including industrialist Jon Huntsman Jr., a Bush administration diplomat making his first bid for political office.
"Huntsman is clearly leading," said state Rep. Ron Bigelow, R-West Valley city, as the convention began.
Other GOP contenders are Utah House Speaker Marty Stephens, businessmen Fred Lampropoulos, regents chairman Nolan Karras, former U.S. Rep. Jim Hansen, state Sen. Parley Hellewell and political unknown Gary Benson.
Each of the convention's 3,500 delegates was to rank all eight candidates in order of preference, eliminating those with the fewest votes. If no one captured 60 percent after the final counting, the top two vote getters would advance to the June primary.
Walker, 73, has been governor only since November, taking over when Gov. Mike Leavitt became administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Walker was his lieutenant governor for 11 years and decided to run for a full term of her own.
Huntsman, 44, who was U.S. ambassador to Singapore during the first Bush administration, differ on several issues with Walker.
Walker vetoed the Legislature's private-school vouchers, saying she won't support vouchers or tax breaks that undermine funding for Utah's cash-strapped public schools.
Huntsman, a trade representative for the current Bush administration, favors vouchers and says he'll improve Utah's economy. He's chairman and chief executive officer of Huntsman Family Holdings Co., the controlling shareholder in a $9.5 billion string of three major chemical manufacturing companies and hundreds of subsidiaries. He's the oldest of six sons and three daughters of Jon Huntsman, a name that's very familiar to Utah voters.
In a state as Republican as Utah, the GOP nomination is almost a guarantee of victory at the November polls. But Utah Democrats Saturday were nominating another favored son, Scott Matheson Jr., dean of the University of Utah College of Law and heir to Utah's last Democratic governor, who served for two terms ending in 1985.
Other Republican nominations were at stake Saturday, led by the competition for the 2nd district congressional seat held by Rep. Jim Matheson, Scott Matheson's younger brother and Utah's only Democrat in Congress.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)