Though Utah is not a crucial early primary state on the road to the Republican presidential nomination, the 2012 campaign could take an occasional detour through it during the next several months as former Gov. Jon Huntsman and honorary favorite son Mitt Romney battle for the GOP’s White House nod.
Utah Republicans do not expect the Beehive State to become some sort of GOP primary battleground in line with the typical early states that of late have included Florida and Nevada. But with Huntsman and Romney both gunning for the nomination and the right to face President Barack Obama in 2012, Republicans are predicting that Utah will see more than its usual share of fundraising and public campaigning during the primary season.
“Utah will be very active,” state Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a Romney supporter, said Friday in a telephone interview. “People here will stay active and interested.”
Romney, scheduled to be on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, was in Salt Lake City on Friday for a fundraiser. While in town, the former Massachusetts governor spent time on the stump, meeting with small-business owners and voters at a locally owned and operated fast food restaurant, Hires Big H Drive-In.
Huntsman’s campaign announcement tour is scheduled to hit Utah on Tuesday, and the former governor plans to operate a regional campaign headquarters in the state. His primary headquarters will be in Florida.
Republican political operatives based in Utah do not expect the Huntsman-Romney competition to generate much retail campaigning. But they do predict a fierce fundraising battle, with both campaigns spending time in Utah to scoop up the significant amount of cash — and possibly, campaign volunteers — the Mormon community is capable of generating. Both Huntsman and Romney are Mormons, although Romney is viewed as being the more religiously devout of the two.
“It’s basically a fundraising race,” Utah House Majority Whip Gregory Hughes, a Huntsman supporter, said in an interview. Hughes, a founding member of the state House Conservative Caucus, expects Romney to have the initial edge because of the existing infrastructure leftover from the 2008 campaign. Hughes predicted many Utah Republicans would support both candidates and believes Huntsman would even the fundraising playing field rather quickly.
The 2012 Utah primary is scheduled for June, by which time the eventual Republican nominee is likely to have locked down support from the party and will be focused on the general election campaign. That should prevent any need to campaign head-to-head for Utah’s delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Still, Huntsman is likely to hold at least a few campaign-style events there in the coming months, according to a former aide.
Romney’s Friday meet-and-greet with voters at the Salt Lake City burger joint was described by one in-state Republican operative as almost unprecedented compared to his typical schedule when on a political trip to Utah. Spokesmen for the Huntsman and Romney campaigns downplayed the notion that they are engaged in a duel for the grass-roots support — or wallets — of Utah Republicans.
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