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.
But interviews with backers of each candidate suggest that some tension exists. That could emanate from Huntsman’s endorsement of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) over Romney in the 2008 primary. The Utah-based Republican operative speculated that conservative state party activists favor neither candidate and would instead prefer the GOP nominate either Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who is expected to announce her candidacy today in Iowa, or Rep. Ron Paul (Texas).
“The grass-roots faithful aren’t impressed by Romney or Huntsman,” this operative said.
Huntsman was serving his second term as governor in 2009 when Obama appointed him ambassador to China, a post he held until April. He won his two terms overwhelmingly and had sky-high approval ratings when he left office, but he has been criticized by some Utah conservatives for his environmental policy and support for civil unions. Romney’s detractors say he had a far less conservative record as Massachusetts governor, especially given his health care plan.
In Utah, their rivalry is mostly one of competing legacies.
Romney’s father, George Romney, was governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969, offering Mormons their first taste of political acceptance and stardom at a time when the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not boast the roster of elected officials that it does now. Mitt Romney’s popularity was further bolstered by his handling of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
Huntsman’s family is equally beloved. Led by Jon Huntsman Sr., the former governor’s family has contributed millions of dollars of its wealth to charitable and church causes. Huntsman is not known to be as religiously devout as Romney. But Huntsman Sr. is, and in Utah, an individual’s standing in the LDS church is viewed as significant within the Mormon community. Huntsman’s father is expected to play a key role in rounding up financial support for his son in Utah in the coming months.
“It carries a lot of goodwill. He’s a leader in LDS church and his family is extremely charitable. The name does help, no doubt about that,” Shurtleff, the Romney supporter, acknowledged. “But the Romney name goes back a long way — it’s an old Mormon name. As far as name recognition, it’s kind of a wash.”