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Ambassador Jon Huntsman trails Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox in gubernatorial poll

FILE - Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is joined by his wife, Abby, as he talks about their decision for him to run for governor in the 2020 election. Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is leading other contenders, including former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., in a new poll on the Utah governor's race for the Salt Lake Chamber released Wednesday. Steve Griffin, Deseret News
FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 29, 2018 file photo, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. attends a ceremony at the Jewish Museum and Center for Tolerance in Moscow, Russia. Alexander Zemlianichenko, Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox is leading other Republican contenders, including former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., in a new poll on the Utah governor's race for the Salt Lake Chamber released Wednesday.

"It's good news for us," Cox's campaign manager, Austin Cox, told the Deseret News. "I think Utahns are really excited about the lieutenant governor's candidacy. They see him working hard for this."

FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 29, 2018 file photo, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. attends a ceremony at the Jewish Museum and Center for Tolerance in Moscow, Russia.

Alexander Zemlianichenko, Associated Press

FILE - In this Monday, Jan. 29, 2018 file photo, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman Jr. attends a ceremony at the Jewish Museum and Center for Tolerance in Moscow, Russia.

The poll put Cox just slightly ahead of Huntsman, a former presidential candidate and now the U.S. ambassador to Russia, among all likely voters, 33% to 32%, followed by former Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes with 5%.

Former Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright also had the support of 5% of those polled for the chamber, and Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton was at 2%.

The yet-to-be-determined Democratic nominee got 11%, while 13% of respondents said they didn't know who they'd vote for in the governor's race. Gov. Gary Herbert, who has held the post since 2009, is not seeking reelection.

But the lieutenant governor's numbers were higher among likely Republican voters, with 41% saying they'd vote for Cox if the election were held today, compared to 26% for Huntsman, 8% for Wright, 6% for Hughes and 1% for Winder Newton.

In a two-way race between Cox and Huntsman, the lieutenant governor widened his lead over the former governor among Republican voters, 45% to 34%, while Huntsman was ahead of Cox among both Democratic and unaffiliated voters.

In Utah, only registered Republicans can vote in a Republican primary.

"As a candidate for the Republican nomination, these are the numbers that matter," Spencer Cox said in a statement. "We'll continue working hard, visiting every city and town to meet as many Utahns as possible. But we are very encouraged that so may Utahns believe in our conservative vision for the state."

Winder Newton, who said she is "actively exploring a run for governor," reacted strongly to the results.

"The feedback I've received so far has been very positive. We need more voices, not fewer in this primary, and I won't be intimidated by political pundits who are trying to say the race is over before it starts," she said.

Wright said he was "grateful for the support and trust that has been shown me in this poll. It's been gratifying to have support both publicly as well as behind the scenes to run for governor even though I'm not a formally announced candidate."

He said he'll decide "in the near future" about a run, and suggested that Cox's numbers aren't unexpected.

"As the only declared candidate who has officially kicked off a campaign, I'm not surprised to see him in the lead," Wright said. "The numbers are fluid. It's still a long, long time to the elections in 2020."

Hughes adviser Greg Hartley, a former Huntsman campaign manager, said Cox "hit the lottery with timing of this poll," coming after he formally announced his run for governor in May.

"It's almost as if the timing of the poll was coordinated," Hartley said, to take advantage of Cox being unopposed. "Frankly, as the lone declared candidate, I'm surprised his numbers aren't even higher."

The poll did not include results for Jason Chaffetz, a former Utah congressman turned Fox News contributor and author, who took himself out of the running in early June.

Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who announced Monday he would not seek reelection to Congress but continues to consider a bid for governor, was not included in the poll, conducted June 11-July 1 by Dan Jones & Associates of 801 Utahns.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for the larger sample that includes Republicans, Democrats and other political affiliations. The margin of error was not available for the GOP-only portion, but would be higher.

Respondents were also asked which of the gubernatorial candidates they'd be least likely to vote for, with whoever the Democratic nominee turns out to be the top response, at 27%, followed by "Don't know," at 19%.

Hughes was at 15% on the least likely list, trailed by Huntsman at 11%; Wright and Winder Newton, both at 10%; and Cox at 6%. However, 68% of those polled said they had a favorable impression of Huntsman, compared to 61% for Cox.

The chamber's quarterly "Utah Outlook — Taking the pulse of our community" poll intended to provide information to business leaders also showed that a majority of Utahns, 64%, believe the state is headed in the right direction.

The top issue facing Utah, the poll found, increasing funding for education, ranked only slightly above promoting economic development and job creation, addressing homelessness and spending more money on transportation.

Another option presented in the poll, reforming the state's liquor laws, lagged behind those issues.