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Cracks forming in GOP stronghold?

Obama’s 34% showing quite strong — for state

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President-elect Barack Obama didn't win Utah, but he finished stronger here than any Democratic presidential candidate since 1968, with just over 34 percent of the vote.

Republican John McCain took Utah with nearly 63 percent of the vote, barely beating Obama in Salt Lake County by less than 2,000 votes. Obama claimed victory in Summit and Grand counties.

Utah hasn't gone for a Democratic presidential candidate since President Lyndon Johnson in 1964. His vice-president, Hubert Humphrey, received just under 37 percent of the Utah vote in 1968.

"That's back when the Democratic Party was more competitive in this state," said Kelly Patterson, director of Brigham Young University's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "After that, it was kind of lights out for the Democrats."

By 1992, the last Democrat to win the White House, former President Bill Clinton, managed only a third-place finish in Utah. Clinton rebounded here four years later, finishing almost as well as Obama did.

This election year, though, Patterson said the center's exit polling showed there wasn't much enthusiasm for the Republican nominee, even among members of the state's dominant party, the GOP.

"Sen. Obama did slightly better among his own party than Sen. McCain did among his own party," Patterson said. "In the end, Sen. McCain had a problem with his Republican base. ... Republicans weren't able to match the Democrats in the enthusiasm category."

That was clear to Misty Fowler, head of Utah for Obama.

"I don't think that the McCain/Palin ticket was exactly what the average Utahn was looking for in the first place," Fowler said. Plus, she said, Obama supporters worked hard to get voters to the polls.

"We keep being told our vote doesn't count, but it does," she said. "We added our voices."

For Tim Bridgewater, McCain's Western states regional coordinator, Obama's showing in Utah proved the state "was not immune to the fact that people were tired of eight years of the Bush administration. They were looking for a change."

Bridgewater said he wasn't worried, though, about Obama winning Utah four years from now if he runs for re-election. "No, I think Utah is solidly conservative," he said. "I don't think the social fabric of our state is going to change dramatically."

Fowler was more optimistic about Obama turning Utah blue in 2012. "I think we can," she said. "I don't want to go so far as to say we will."

Utah was the third-best finish for McCain on Tuesday, behind Oklahoma and Wyoming. And despite predictions of a record turnout — and huge numbers of early voters — only 58 percent of registered voters went to the polls, more than 44,000 fewer votes than in 2004.

Pollster Dan Jones said some supporters of Mitt Romney's failed White House bid apparently stayed home on Election Day.

Romney, the leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, handed McCain his worst primary defeat by winning Utah's GOP presidential primary in February with a whopping 90 percent of the vote.

After dropping out of the presidential race, Romney headed back out on the campaign trail for McCain and other Republicans and is considered a leading contender for the GOP nomination in 2012, along with McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Jones wasn't ready to predict an Obama victory in Utah four years from now, either. "That would be very difficult," the pollster said, "especially if his opponent is Mitt Romney."

Contributing: Lee Davidson

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com