SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, a hugely popular Republican from one of the nation’s most conservative states, made waves and headlines in recent months by suggesting that his party would need to move toward the center to start winning national elections again.
With his support for President Obama’s economic stimulus plan, his successful effort to ease the state’s method of regulating liquor sales and his advocacy of civil unions to protect same-sex couples, Mr. Huntsman ignited a debate over what the Republican Party here should be.
Now he has been chosen by the president to be the next ambassador to China. But in exiting stage left, assuming Mr. Huntsman is confirmed by the Senate, he leaves the debate he began unfinished.
Conservative Republicans say the state party will stay right of center; Democrats agree and say they think voters will respond by looking for moderate alternatives in the mold of Mr. Huntsman — perhaps Republican, perhaps even Democratic.
Scholars say that Utah’s demographic portrait is changing, especially with the fast growth of the Hispanic population, but that only time will tell where those changes go and how prescient Mr. Huntsman proved to be.
His would-be successor, Lt. Gov. Gary R. Herbert, is regarded as a staunch conservative and is already distancing himself from some of Mr. Huntsman’s positions, including support for same-sex civil unions. Supporters say Mr. Herbert, who has said he will run in a special election next year to fill out the rest of Mr. Huntsman’s second term, through 2012, will lead the party back to conservative orthodoxy. Other conservatives have said they may challenge him for the nomination if he does not.
“Conservatives are shouting from the rooftops,” said Adam Brown, an instructor in political science at Brigham Young University in Provo.
But Democrats, in expressing their own hopes, are suggesting that Mr. Huntsman was right in his take on the demographic trends that are driving the electorate. They point to the drift away from the Republican brand in last fall’s election by younger and first-time voters in Utah, and to the growing numbers of Hispanic voters, who tend to support Democrats. Mr. Herbert, they say — in tipping their hand about the likely tone of the next campaign season — is too conservative for the evolving, diverse, urbanized state that Utah is becoming.
The added wild card, both sides say, is Mr. Obama. Although he lost in Utah last fall, he won in Salt Lake County, the biggest county by population, although his victory was by a slim 296-vote margin over Senator John McCain out of about 370,000 votes cast.
By selecting Mr. Huntsman, who is lionized in much of the state and won re-election in November with 78 percent of the vote, Mr. Obama has linked his name to Mr. Huntsman’s golden glow, further spicing a stew that might blur party lines and loyalties in the special election for governor.
“Obama will be an important figure for Western Democrats,” said State Senator Patricia W. Jones, a Democrat and the minority leader. “The fact that he picked our Republican governor — not only was it the perfect choice, it says a lot about the president.”
Mr. Herbert said in an interview at the Capitol that he mostly intended to stay the course Mr. Huntsman set, especially on fiscal and economic affairs. But where they differ on social and environmental issues — Mr. Huntsman, for example, supported initiatives to fight climate change, while Mr. Herbert said he thought the science was still out on how much global warming is caused by human activity — Mr. Herbert said he will speak to and for Utahans in a way that Mr. Huntsman, whose presidential ambitions are well known, did not.
“Governor Huntsman has been talking to a national stage,” said Mr. Herbert, a 62-year-old real estate developer. “I’m talking to a State of Utah stage, and that’s a different audience.”
Mr. Huntsman declined an interview request because of the pending Senate confirmation hearings.
Geography may also partly dictate whether Utah swerves right or follows Mr. Huntsman’s playbook toward the center. Salt Lake County has elected increasing numbers of Democrats to local and state legislative offices. And it went for Mr. Obama in November. But that was more than countered by Utah County, the second-biggest county by population, where Mr. McCain got more than 75 percent of the vote. Utah County, with Provo as its largest city, is Mr. Herbert’s home base, and he served on the county commission for 14 years.
Utahans have elected Democratic governors in the past, most recently Scott M. Matheson, who served from 1977 to 1985. And the Matheson name is another potential wrinkle standing in the way of what Republicans hope will be a restoration of traditional party spirit after Mr. Huntsman.
Representative Jim Matheson, a Democrat, is the son of the former governor and a possible challenger to Mr. Herbert. He is popular among Republicans in much the same way Mr. Huntsman was among Democrats in his first election as governor in 2004 and again last fall.
Mr. Matheson represents Utah’s Second Congressional District, which comprises the eastern half of Salt Lake County, the northern tip of Utah County and 14 eastern and southern Utah counties. In each of his last four elections, he got more Republican votes each time — peaking last fall at 30 percent among people who described themselves as “strong Republicans” and at about 65 percent among “weak Republicans,” according to a study at the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young. (Mr. McCain got 62 percent of the vote in Utah.)
“It’s not the doom of the Republican Party in Utah, but it does suggest some warning signs,” said Quin Monson, an assistant professor of political science at Brigham Young, who conducted the study.