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Utahns getting over Mitt

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Utahns are warming up to John McCain, the GOP's pick for president.

A new poll for the Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV found that 54 percent of Utahns surveyed statewide would vote for the Arizona senator for president if the election were held today.

That's nearly twice as many as supported McCain in a poll taken last month, after Mitt Romney, the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and the state's "favorite son" candidate, dropped out of the race for the

Republican presidential nomination.

The higher poll numbers in the reddest of Republican states are good news for McCain, who will make a brief stop in Salt Lake City Thursday for a private fundraiser at the Grand America Hotel.

"People have not immediately embraced John McCain. It's taken some time," his western states regional coordinator, Tim Bridgewater, said. "Utahns are rallying around him in support of his leadership on the war, the economy and the fact that people trust him."

The support of Utahns for the two Democrats still in the race for the White House, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, has changed little since last month's poll.

The new poll by Dan Jones & Associates, taken March 17-20, found that 21 percent of Utahns statewide back Obama and 11 percent, Clinton. Just 1 percent said they favored independent candidate Ralph Nader.

The survey of 610 Utahns statewide has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

Pollster Dan Jones said many Utahns were upset with McCain for forcing Romney out of the race. Although Romney won Utah's GOP primary on Feb. 5 with an overwhelming 90 percent of the vote, he quit after losing California and other key states to McCain.

"When Romney got out of the election, it took some of the enthusiasm out of voters, especially Republicans," Jones said. "They're starting to accept John McCain more. But a lot of it is independent and young voters, 18-24, starting to lose excitement over Obama mania."

Obama, who won Utah's Democratic presidential primary on Feb. 5 with 57 percent of the vote, barely trailed McCain with 25 percent of Utahns surveyed in the Dan Jones poll taken two days later, after Romney announced he was leaving the race.

That's 4 percent higher than he received in the current poll but within the margin of error. Jones said the continuing battle between Obama and Clinton for the nomination has dampened some of his support. Clinton's number was unchanged in the current poll.

"Obama is losing some of the glamour he once had, so today it's not as close as it once was between Obama and McCain," Jones said, predicting that gap will close again in Utah if Obama is the Democratic nominee.

But Clinton won't be able to do much better in Utah, the pollster said. "Unless things change very much, she won't run as high," Jones said, citing the unpopularity in the state of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, as well as her personality.

Clinton's spokesman in Utah, Donald Dunn, said he wasn't surprised more Utahns were backing McCain but suggested his numbers should be higher.

"People will come home to roost where they're used to roosting. I think it's more telling that McCain is only at 54 percent," Dunn said.

Utah for Obama grass-roots organizer Nikki Norton agreed.

"The state is overwhelmingly Republican. I'm surprised he's not stronger," Norton said of McCain. "I think Republicans should be concerned about that. It shows that Utahns are not necessarily that committed."

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com