New York Times
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Jun 26, 2011
SALT LAKE CITY » Two hugely popular political figures in Utah, Mitt Romney and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., are going fishing in this same small pond of a state, seeking financial support in their bids to become the Republican Party's nominee for president next year.
That has potentially significant implications for the national election, given the Mormon propensity to dig deep in supporting one of their own -- Romney and Huntsman are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is based here. But it is already creating deep division and uncertainty among people who like both men and are now being forced to choose.
"My wife is a Mitt person, and I am a Jon person -- you're going to see that in a lot of households," said Lew Cramer, a business development executive in Salt Lake City who contributed the maximum allowed to Romney's presidential campaign in 2008 but has switched allegiances and is now serving on Huntsman's national finance committee.
On Friday, Romney came to the state for private meetings and for one sun-baked late afternoon appearance in the parking lot of a drive-in fast food restaurant.
His targets were President Barack Obama and most everything Obama has done as president. Huntsman, who jumped into the race last week, was not on the menu for attack. A restaurant sign reading "tips are appreciated" was covered with bunting just before Romney spoke.
"We have 20 million Americans that are out of work or have stopped looking for work or are in part-time jobs," Romney said, standing tie-less on the back of a pickup truck with his wife, Ann, as he addressed a crowd of several hundred people.
The crowd was enthusiastic, but not uniformly so.
"I'm supporting our party," said Jeff Haaga, 55, a marketing executive and chairman of his local Republican Party precinct who said he was undecided. "Huntsman, if I had to choose today," he added.
Utah, despite having only 2.8 million people, was Romney's third biggest source of money in 2008 -- after Massachusetts, where he had been governor, and California -- contributing more than $5.5 million. Romney also raised significant money in heavily Mormon areas of the west outside Utah, particularly in Idaho and Arizona. In the 2008 Republican presidential primary in Utah, he got almost 90 percent of the vote.
Huntsman, on the other hand, succeeded where Romney never ventured. He got elected to office in Utah -- twice as governor, in 2004 and 2008. In the 2008 election, in particular, his popularity was overwhelming, winning with 78 percent of the vote. Indeed, 36 percent of Utah voters who identified themselves as Democrats voted for him that year, according to an Edison-Mitofsky exit poll.
The imprint and connection to Utah extends, for both men, partly through their fathers. Romney's was George W. Romney, a businessman in Utah and later governor of Michigan in the 1960s. Huntsman's father, Jon M. Huntsman Sr., is an economic and political patriarch -- a billionaire chemical-industry entrepreneur and philanthropist whose name is associated with the cancer research institute he funded at the University of Utah.
For better or worse -- and probably worse in overwhelmingly Republican Utah -- Huntsman is also linked to Obama, having served as ambassador to China from 2009 until this April. Obama got less than 35 percent of the vote here, one of his lowest rates in the nation.
Both men face potential trouble in Utah from Tea Party groups. They have attacked Romney for his role, as governor of Massachusetts, in helping pass a health care plan in 2006, considered a model for the federal overhaul passed last year. Huntsman has come under fire for, among other things, supporting a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions when he was governor of Utah.
"I don't know of any true-blue Tea Party activists who are supporting Huntsman or Romney," said Darcy Van Orden, chairwoman of the Utah Republican Liberty Caucus, a group that declares itself "the conscience of the Republican Party."
But beyond the issues of money and popularity, the Huntsman-Romney divide seems likely to expose what could be an even trickier question for many people in Utah: Is one candidate more devoutly Mormon than the other? And should a conclusion about that bleed over into political support or opposition?
Huntsman, in some recent interviews, appears to have distanced himself a bit from his religion. "I can't say I am overly religious," he said in an interview with Fortune magazine last year, a quote that many Utahans can recite from memory. "I get satisfaction from many different types of religions and philosophies."
The statement could prove to be positive on the national stage, but it sticks in at least few craws here at home.
"For those Mormons like myself that are more committed, I think that rubs us wrong," said Steve Belnap, 53, an accountant who was on his way to work in downtown Salt Lake City on Friday morning. "However, on the other side, Huntsman is going to pick up those who have lost the commitment. Who gets the most votes because of that, I don't know."