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Utahns are big on Romney

State and top political party leaders will go ahead with a Feb. 5 "presidential poll" next year even though a new poll shows that Mitt Romney is way ahead of any other contender and could easily pick up Utah's Republican Party's nomination.

Romney is set to announce his formal candidacy today in Michigan, his home state.

Romney, whose one term as Massachusetts's GOP governor ended in January, is well known to Utahns. He is credited with saving Salt Lake City's 2002 Winter Olympic Games after national and international scandal wracked the Olympics, and he has a vacation home in Deer Valley.

Romney is also known as a member of the state's dominate religion, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And while Romney is not the first Mormon to run for the presidency, he is considered a top contender for his party's nomination next year.

A new Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll conducted by Dan Jones & Associates finds that 45 percent of Utahns favor Romney now.

More importantly, in the GOP nomination race, Romney is favored by 63 percent of those who told Jones they are Republicans and by 69 percent of those who said they routinely "strongly" vote Republican.

So in any GOP primary, Romney is way, way ahead.

Jones found that former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani gets only 9 percent of the GOP vote, while Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., gets just 12 percent of the Republican vote to Romney's 63 percent in a GOP primary.

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., like former GOP Gov. Mike Leavitt before him, is pushing for a western states primary early next year. The 2006 Legislature put $850,000 aside for such a vote.

But state leaders now say it would cost $3.2 million to pay for a statewide primary using the new electronic voting machines, with official polling places staffed by judges. Huntsman and GOP legislative leaders refuse to spend any more money on the vote.

So, Rep. Doug Aagard, R-Kaysville, has a bill this session to turn the primary election into a "party primary poll," where the individual political parties will conduct a vote next year.

"We are very confident we can run a primary poll for much less money" than it would cost the state to conduct a regular statewide vote, said Jeff Hartley, state GOP executive director. Under Aagard's legislation, each officially sanctioned political party (as of now there are only three) will get a cash down payment, and then each party will bill the state for out-of-pocket expenses in conducting their own primary poll — with $850,000 being the collective limit.

Hartley says Republicans and Democrats alike will organize the Feb. 5 vote using local high schools across the state.

When the Utah Democratic Party held presidential primary votes in 2004 — spending about $50,000 — it used libraries across most of Utah.

Huntsman spokesman Mike Mower and Hartley said Utah should go ahead with the primary poll, even though Romney has such a huge lead among Utah Republicans, who out-number Democrats 2-to-1 here.

"Either we are part of this regional presidential primary effort or we are not," said Hartley. "We strongly believe we should be a part of it — so that Republican and Democratic presidential candidates, and Americans in general, can learn about our unique issues," said Hartley.

Todd Taylor, executive director of the Utah Democratic Party, says the Democratic race here could be wide open, and the West could be "very important," if no Democratic candidate sweeps the four early-state primaries coming about a week before the Feb. 5 western vote.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-New York, got 47 percent of the Democratic vote in Jones' new poll, with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., getting 13 percent, and other Democrats falling into single digits. No Democratic presidential candidate has carried Utah since former President Lyndon Johnson won the state in 1964.

Utah's efforts at regional presidential primaries have been lackluster.

Leavitt traveled the western states in 1999, trying to get state legislators to fund a western primary. Ultimately, only Utah and Colorado held a primary on March 10. Wyoming Republicans held caucuses that day.

But just a few days before, then-Texas Gov. George Bush emerged as the certain GOP nominee as the other contenders, including McCain, dropped out of the race. The ultimate Democratic nominee, Al Gore, also had the nomination wrapped up by the March 10 vote in Utah. Utah spent $600,000 on the statewide primary, with just 10 percent voter turnout, or just over $5.50 per vote in a race that ended up not meaning anything.

But Taylor, Hartley and Mower vow 2008 will be different.

"The parties can probably do this for less than $850,000. The Demos may do it for $100,000 with the Republicans maybe spending a little more on printing materials," says Taylor.

Democratic and Republican candidates "would be crazy" to miss campaigning in the western states, believes Taylor, even with Romney's huge lead now in the Utah polls.

"Utah has lead the way before," says Mower, a long-standing devotee of Utah and national politics. "Hey, I was there at the Utah Republican Convention in 1976 when Ronald Reagan beat (then President) Gerald Ford." And the Utah GOP delegation went on to the national convention to challenge Ford, who ultimately won the nomination but lost the election.

"We can be first in Utah" in national politics. "We could do it again," said Mower, and spending $850,000 or whatever the lower amount may be will be money well spent when Utah and other western states grab the ears of national candidates and the national media on Feb. 5, 2008, he said.