SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney endorsed Gov. Gary Herbert's re-election Thursday.
The GOP's 2012 presidential nominee's support comes as voters are already casting ballots in the June 28 Republican primary election that pits Herbert against Overstock.com chairman Jonathan Johnson.
Romney said in a statement that Herbert can be proud of a record that is "showing the rest of the country how conservative principles help business grow and families prosper," including keeping taxes and unemployment low and investing in schools.
"I know these last eight years have been extremely challenging for our country," he said. "Our national economy remains sluggish, and it seems our country is drifting off course more and more every day. But in Utah, the story is remarkably different."
Herbert told KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright that he was "very grateful" for the support from the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City who now lives in Utah.
"There's no greater, I think, statesman out there than Mitt Romney. I refer to him as our favorite adopted son," the governor said. He said Romney held a fundraiser for him in his Salt Lake area home.
Johnson said he was not surprised by the endorsement. Herbert has been a longtime Romney supporter, even as lieutenant governor when then-Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. endorsed Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008.
"I've never been the establishment candidate," Johnson said. "I don't think it will have much of an impact. It didn't have an impact when he endorsed (former Utah GOP Sen.) Bob Bennett six years ago."
Romney had campaigned for Bennett's re-election in 2010, but the three-term senator lost at the state GOP convention in what was widely seen as the first victory by tea party followers.