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Gov. Herbert cautions there may not be a presidential debate in Salt Lake (+video)

SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert, who said Tuesday he and other Republican governors aren't afraid of Donald Trump becoming their party's nominee, cautioned there may not be a presidential debate in Salt Lake City.

Herbert told reporters the billionaire business mogul and reality TV star's front-runner status was a topic among the half-dozen GOP governors attending the Republican Governors Association annual meeting Monday in Deer Valley.

Utah's governor also suggested there's a possibility there won't be a Republican National Committee presidential debate in Salt Lake City on March 21 as planned because Trump might be a no-show.

Herbert told reporters the debate was discussed at the largely political meeting of GOP governors. He then said, "We hope there's a presidential debate here in Utah" but that may depend on primary election results between now and then.

"I have no reason to believe that there won't be one, but I do note that Donald Trump has said, 'If I've got it wrapped up, I may not come to Salt Lake.' Now, I would think that would be a mistake on his part," the governor said.

Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said preparations are going forward for the debate, added to the schedule last month even though there's talk Trump won't come.

"Trump said that before. It's the, 'Will he, won't he?'" the party leader said. "This scenario has happened before, the speculation that Trump may not come to a debate."

Evans said a media partner and a venue have been selected for the debate but are not expected to be announced by the national party until after Thursday's debate in Miami.

The Deseret News has reported that Fox News is expected to host the Salt Lake City debate, and that both the Salt Palace and the University of Utah's Huntsman Center were under consideration.

Jason Perry, head of the U.'s Hinckley Institute of Politics, said he's "heard the discussion about whether or not this debate will happen in the state of Utah." He said a lot is hanging on the results of upcoming primary elections.

Still, Perry said, "it is thrilling to know that Utah is important enough on the political scene to even be considered."

The governor said keeping Trump off the top of the GOP ticket was not on the Republican Governors Association's agenda despite the party's previous nominee, Mitt Romney, condemning Trump as a fraud and a phony at a University of Utah speech last week.

"There was not any discussion with me about, 'Stop Donald Trump. What can we do to stop Donald Trump?'" Herbert said of the meeting. "The discussion was more, 'What about this peculiar phenomenon?"

Trump's big lead in the Republican race over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, may be pushing Herbert to make an endorsement sooner rather than later.

He said he may announce his choice before the presidential debate in Salt Lake City, the day before Utah Republicans and Democrats will hold presidential preference caucuses instead of a traditional primary election.

The governor said Republican governors at the meeting don't understand Trump's appeal.

"I wouldn't say they're afraid of Donald Trump at all. I think, like most Americans, they're a little bit puzzled about what's taking place," Herbert said. "The rules that we've followed in the past have been thrown out the window."

He said there was some concern about the impact on public engagement "and just puzzlement about why statements being made, which would have seemingly disqualified a candidate in previous election cycles, are acceptable."

Also a concern, Herbert said, is the lack of governors still in the race. The largely political meeting of GOP governors included one of the candidates who dropped out early, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.

The only governor still in the running is Kasich, and Herbert said his peers wonder why the "one that had the proper presidential decorum, why he is not succeeding as well as we would have thought."

In an interview with The Washington Post for a story about how the GOP establishment is viewing Trump, Herbert was more critical of what has led to Trump's candidacy and success with voters.

“We’ve got this Enquirer magazine mentality,” Herbert told the Post. “We are subject to this reality-TV voyeurism that is taking place. Fast-food headlines, no substance, all flash. The Twitter atmosphere out there, snarky comments on email, Snapchat. Everything is superficial. … We’ve got to wake up, America.”

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com

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