WASHINGTON -- Touting a record that could complicate his bid for the Republican presidential nomination, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman challenged his party Thursday to protect the environment and acknowledge climate change as a real threat.
Huntsman, who is trailing in the polls but is working to build a campaign that could deny front-runner Mitt Romney the nod, criticized those who question the science behind climate change and loathe government's role in fighting it. His tough message was unlikely to endear him to conservatives who hold great sway in the party's nominating process.
"We will be judged by how well we were stewards of those (natural) resources," said Huntsman, a veteran of three Republican administrations who until this spring was President Barack Obama's ambassador to China.
"Conservation is conservative. I'm not ashamed to be a conservationist. I also believe that science should be driving our discussions on climate change," he added.
Polling on the issue gives Huntsman little reason to embrace – or promote – his position or his moderate environmental record while governor.
Conservative Republicans have grown more vocal in their doubts about climate change.
Meanwhile, in an interview broadcast Thursday night by Fox News Channel, Huntsman faulted Obama's handling of the debt crisis, saying "the president has shown no leadership. ... He doesn't have a plan on the table."
Of the mounting federal debt, he said: "We've got to get on with this cancer that has taken over this country. We need to cut it out. We need to radiate it."
On the environment, Gallup polling has shown a decline over the past few years in the share of Americans saying that global warming's effects have already begun – from a high of 61 percent in 2008 to 49 percent in March. The change is driven almost entirely by conservatives.
In 2008, 50 percent of conservatives said they believed global warming already is having effects; that figure dropped to 30 percent this year.
During his two terms as governor, Huntsman supported a regional "cap-and-trade" program to reduce greenhouse gas pollution. He has since backed away from that compact with seven other Western states and four Canadian provinces to reduce greenhouse gases, but is still supportive of other environmental policies.
Huntsman's advisers were pitching Thursday night's speech as an opportunity to highlight larger policy reversals involving the other contenders. Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty campaigned for environmental legislation with the Environmental Defense Action Fund but has since revised his support of a cap-and-trade program. Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich supported such programs.
From the podium, Huntsman didn't highlight those changes among his rivals on the environment. Instead, he criticized them for not being more involved in the political fight of the hour just up the street at the U.S. Capitol: a debate over a measure that would raise the nation's debt limit and avoid a government default.
"None of us should be standing idly by during the 2012 election cycle as we are about to hand down, for the first time in our history, a country that is less good than the one we got," he said.
A day earlier, Romney declined to weigh in on House Republicans' deficit-reduction plan. The others opposed Speaker John Boehner's effort to avoid a government default that could happen on Tuesday if Congress doesn't allow the Treasury to borrow more money to pay its bills.
"None of my opponents have supported a plan that would allow us to avoid default," he said. "This is not a time, ladies and gentlemen, to play politics. ... The world is watching."