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.
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.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.