I'm clearly leaning toward running again. I'm putting myself in a position to do that. I'm certainly encouraged by a lot of people, which is nice. —Gov. Gary Herbert

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Gov. Gary Herbert publicly announced Thursday that he's running for re-election in 2016, after telling a group of about 50 of his core supporters the day before that he is in the race.

"Keep it quiet because this is not an official announcement, but I am, you know, intending to run in 2016," the governor joked during the taping of his monthly news conference on KUED, Ch. 7.

Herbert said he felt he needed to address the speculation surrounding the governor's race at what he called a regular annual meeting with the political, business and community leaders that have backed his previous runs.

His supporters were "being hit by other people and saying, 'Well, gee, do we find another horse to ride? Is there somebody else out there?' A lot of people are concerned if not me, who," he said.

The governor acknowledged talking about the 2016 race before this year's election is even over was "a little bit awkward," but said that "with the encouragement and the questions being asked, I told my supporters it is my intention to run again."

The timing of his announcement, however, is not unexpected. At the end of the 2014 Legislature in March, Herbert said he would make a decision this summer about another run.

Herbert said he does not expect to transition into campaign mode until next year.

House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, has been seen as a potential challenger to Herbert in 2016, especially after she labeled Herbert an "inaction figure" at the start of the legislative session.

Lockhart was in Idaho Thursday and not immediately available for comment on the governor deciding to run for re-election.

Another Republican eyeing the race, Overstock.com Chairman Jonathan Johnson, said Herbert's announcement doesn't impact his plans.

"There's an election going on that's important, so I haven't made any official announcement. But my intention today is the same as it was six months ago," Johnson said. "I'm looking seriously at it, and I can't see why I wouldn't."

Johnson said he is putting together a team of political advisers and meeting with people around the state about bringing what he termed "fresh leadership" to the governor's office.

While Johnson said he expected the governor to run for re-election, he didn't expect the announcement to come so soon.

"We're a long way from 2016," he said. "I guess I was surprised by the timing. I'm not sure what to read into that."

Herbert, who served as lieutenant governor under former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., became governor when Huntsman stepped down in 2009 to become U.S. ambassador to China. He had to run for the remainder of Huntsman's term in 2010, and he was elected to his first full term in 2012.

Earlier this year, Herbert was named the nation's most popular governor by the Washington Post, based on a high approval rating.

Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and an adviser to the governor, said Herbert's announcement should come as no surprise given his popularity with voters.

"The early announcement is a courtesy to his supporters and potential political candidates," Jowers said. "His supporters will now be content to not entertain any other options and potential candidates will most likely look for a different race because Gov. Herbert looks pretty unbeatable at the moment."

Herbert won big in both of his past gubernatorial races and has been able to raise more than $1 million at his annual fundraiser.

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said the governor is clearly trying to shape the field in the upcoming race.

"He may still get challengers. I think that's probably likely at this point," Karpowitz said. "I don't think the fact the governor has indicated his intentions means their campaigns are necessarily doomed. It just means it's a different field and a taller task."

The BYU political science professor agreed Herbert will be a tough opponent.

"I don't see a ton of space here. There's not widespread discontent with the governor right now," Karpowitz said. "Right now, he's really popular and that's an awfully nice place from which to run for re-election."

Also Thursday, Herbert said again that he remains optimistic he can win approval for his Healthy Utah alternative to Medicaid expansion from both the Obama administration and the Utah Legislature this year.

The governor told reporters after the taping that his pilot program to provide health care coverage with the nearly $300 million in Medicaid expansion funds available under the Affordable Care Act could end after three years.

"The Obama administration has agreed that this is a voluntary issue and we can get out anytime," Herbert said, or limit coverage to Utahns earning below 100 percent of the federal poverty level.

"It may be that we will want to have a fall-back position to ease fears that people would have out there that we're going to embrace something that becomes a budget buster for us down the road," he said.

During the news conference, Herbert said a prediction by former state Sen. Dan Liljenquist that some 400,000 Utahns could end up under the Healthy Utah plan, straining the state budget, is "probably a little bit exaggerated."

When Liljenquist warned state lawmakers last week of what he sees as a "substantial risk," Utah Department of Health Executive Director David Patton said the governor was looking at ways to address his concerns.

Patton said those could include possibly dropping coverage for Utahns earning between 100 percent and 138 percent of poverty after three years, and turning to traditional Medicaid to cover those below 100 percent.

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