LEHI, Utah » Mia Love stared straight ahead, her face etched into the sort of camera-ready countenance that takes many politicians years to master, as yet another Republican luminary extolled her virtues at a news conference. Just a year ago, Love was an unheard-of small-city mayor with a notion of running for Congress. Now, she is one of her party’s most luminescent stars.
Love likes to say, during nearly every campaign stop or speech, that she is "first and foremost a wife and mother." She is also the Republicans’ biggest hope yet for finally picking off Rep. Jim Matheson, the lone Democrat in the Utah delegation, who for over a decade has been the bighorn sheep of incumbents, a prized yet elusive trophy the Republicans have failed to bag in spite of frenzied efforts.
If elected, Love, 36, would be the first black female Republican to serve in the House, a fact that she studiously plays down.
"The only history I’m interested in making," she said in an interview, "is getting our country on track."
Her story of rising from humble beginnings as the daughter of Haitian immigrants and her tea party-infused politics (she advocates large cuts to student loan programs and local law enforcement grants, as well as a significant downsizing of the Energy Department) have dazzled Republicans across the country, who have supported her campaign since her star turn at the Republican National Convention this summer.
The number of high-profile Republicans who have zipped over to Utah to support Love — Rep. Eric Cantor, the No. 2 House Republican, was here last week for a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser — far surpasses that of any other House Republican challenger in this election cycle.
Her fundraising, previously anemic and disorganized, has been greatly accelerated by her growing celebrity since the convention. Through mid-October, Love raised nearly $2 million, nearly half of which came between July and September.
But what may ultimately help push Love over the top is the presence of Mitt Romney, a Mormon leader and the man hailed as the savior of the Salt Lake City Olympics, at the top of the ticket. Local enthusiasm for his candidacy is something akin to the frenetic avidity shared by anyone under 25 for Taylor Swift’s new album.
Romney is expected to drive an unusually large voter turnout in Utah, perhaps garnering a record percentage of the vote. Love is careful to tie herself closely to Romney, even including his voice from an automatic phone call in a television ad, and Democrats worry that the state’s straight-ticket voting option on its machines will further enhance Love’s chances.
"I haven’t seen this popularity around a presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan," said David Hansen, a former state Republican Party chairman who has run the re-election campaign of Sen. Orrin Hatch. "There is a whole lot of enthusiasm for him out here, and she does pick up those coattails. I’d say any Republican candidate that is within 3 to 5 points of their opponent is going to win here."
Matheson, 52, whose father was a governor of Utah, has managed to prevail against Republicans for six terms, and he says he actually does best in presidential years, when the Republicans inevitably win the top of the ticket in his district. His moderate positions — he is one of the last remaining Blue Dogs, and voted against the Affordable Care Act — have kept him in good stead with voters.
"This is not all that new for me," he said, adding a distinction that seems to have little difference: "This is not a Republican state, this is a conservative state."
Love was born in Brooklyn, the child of Haitians who fled their native land in the 1970s. She said her parents immigrated legally, though she was not sure if it was through a tourist visa or some other means, and her narrative has come under some scrutiny.
"I was told it was under a process that is not currently available," she said.
She graduated with a degree in fine arts from the University of Hartford, where she met her husband, Jason, converted to Mormonism and became interested in politics while listening to him talk about national issues, she said.
She worked for Continental Airlines as a flight attendant; for the call center company Sento, where she was a technical support agent, helping French speakers; and for Ecopass, an Internet software firm, where she served as a spokeswoman.
Love got her start in politics in 2003, shortly after she stopped working to take care of the first of her three children. She was persuaded by neighbors to run for the City Council in Saratoga Springs, a rapidly growing city in the expanding suburbs of Salt Lake City.
"They wanted someone who could get things done, and I am known for that," she said.
She was elected mayor in 2009. Among her accomplishments, she said, was guiding the city through a fiscal crisis as its population exploded and introducing a residential tax that would pay only for the firefighting and police forces.
"I think it’s interesting to have your children see you get dressed and know that Mom is going to a City Council meeting," she said.
Elegant, poised and disciplined, Love hews carefully to a series of catchphrases and slogans to anchor her campaign stops. From women’s forums to fundraisers to the stump, she says often, and with the same cadence, that her father once told her: "Mia, your mother and I never took a handout. You will not be a burden to society; you will give back."
Some Republicans in Washington have occasionally groused privately that Love has spent too much time on national television programs and too little knocking on doors. But party leaders are eager to have Love join them in the Capitol.
"I think certainly it is historic," Cantor said when asked before a fundraiser here about having a black woman in the ranks of House Republicans. He compared her story to the experience of his Jewish immigrant family and added that she was "the beneficiary" of that American experience.
"She has a tremendous voice," he said, "and will join us in pursuing that dream that so many Americans have of seeing our country get back on track so we can build a better future."