SALT LAKE CITY — Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin says he's not only in the race to win but also to start a new conservative movement that might or might not include the Republican Party.
McMullin said he and his running mate, Mindy Finn, talk a lot about whether they would return to the GOP after their against-all-odds campaign ends. He was a top aide to House Republicans while she worked for the national party.
"We are highly skeptical that the Republican Party will be able to make the reforms it needs to make in order to be a politically viable vehicle to the conservative movement," McMullin told the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards Friday.
"We’re not closing the door entirely on that, but we've seen it from the inside and have very good reason to believe that it just will not happen within a generation," the first-time candidate, who didn't get in the race until August, said.
McMullin, 40, is riding high in Utah on the heels of new polls this week that put him within striking distance of Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton, both extremely unpopular with many voters in the state.
Chuck Todd, NBC News political director and moderator of "Meet the Press," told the Deseret News that McMullin may end up fracturing the conservative vote in Utah, putting Clinton "in the driver's seat potentially to win" the state.
"I don't know if (McMullin) has an impact nationally as far as any other states, but I think he can do well in Utah. My guess is he can't win it. I'd be surprised if he won it," Todd said.
On Friday, NBC declared Utah a toss-up state, part of a shift throughout the country favoring Clinton after Trump's latest troubles stemming from his own graphic statements about women as well as new allegations of inappropriate touching.
"Utah is the most unusual of them all because of the Evan McMullin candidacy. This is the one place where he has caught fire," Todd said. "I think it helps a lot that he is a member of the LDS" Church.
Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said even though McMullin has ties to the state, he still is largely unknown by many voters and has lots of work to do in the little time left before the election.
"The thing he has going for him is they know who he is not. He is not Donald Trump. He is not Hillary Clinton," Perry said. But to truly affect the presidential race, he said "it's going to have to be something bigger that just the state of Utah."
Many Utah GOP leaders and rank-and-file Republicans abandoned Trump after lewd comments he made about women surfaced in a video last weekend, opening the door for Clinton and McMullin.
Some Republican voters now might be looking for cues from party leaders as Election Day approaches.
McMullin said he has had conversations with "who you'd expect" in the state about backing him. He said he would let them speak for themselves about their positions. He called on Utah's elected officials to support him in a Facebook post.
So far, none of those who jumped off the Trump wagon or who never climbed on have endorsed McMullin, Libertarian Gary Johnson or any other third-party candidate, although former Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell backs McMullin.
And Josh Romney, the son of 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said Friday he's taking another look at McMullin after warning in a speech last month about the "permanent damage" Trump is doing to Republicans.
"I'm not certain what I'll do, but I'm definitely considering McMullin," Josh Romney, a Utah real estate developer who is seen as a possible candidate for governor in 2020, said.
Mitt Romney, who called Trump a "fraud" and a "phony" in a widely covered speech at the U. last March, has rented his email fundraising list to McMullin, but he has not made an endorsement in the general election.
McMullin said his campaign has a very high "conversion rate" among people who learn its message, and that's what he cares about more than getting elected officials on board.
He said he welcomes elected leaders' support, but his cause doesn't depend on them, many of whom supported Trump and allowed his "destructive" movement to grow.
"Now should we turn to them for validation? I don't think so," McMullin said.
Johnson told the Deseret News earlier this week that it's one thing for Republicans to speak out against their party's nominee and another to say who they now support.
"And who do they actually pull the lever for when they get behind the curtain? Well, that ought to be me and Bill Weld," Johnson said.
McMullin told the editorial board he has communicated privately with Johnson about a debate among the third-party candidates but has been repeatedly rebuffed. Friday, he renewed his call for Johnson to agree to a debate.
Johnson, however, said he doesn't see any reason to debate McMullin because he is on the ballot in all 50 states, while McMullin appears on the ballot in just 11 states and is a write-in candidate in 23 others so far.
During the hourlong meeting with the editorial board, McMullin introduced Finn, 35, who joined the ticket last week. He talked about the reasons he believes he is ready to lead the country.
McMullin said his 11 years as a CIA operations officer uniquely qualify him on matters of foreign policy. He said the United States needs to destroy ISIS and that he would send in special forces to take down President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
On fiscal policy, McMullin said he would lower both corporate and individual income taxes, promote an open economy and reform entitlements such as Social Security, including raising the retirement age and curtailing benefits to wealthy Americans.