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Likely 'Never Trump' alternative candidate not known in Utah but could be helped by Mitt Romney

FILE - In this Jan. 28, 2015 file photo, former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss. Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney says he will not run for president in 2016.
FILE - In this Jan. 28, 2015 file photo, former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss. Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney says he will not run for president in 2016.
Associated Press

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah GOP Chairman James Evans had no idea who David French was when the conservative lawyer and writer emerged Wednesday as a likely independent candidate for president backed by Mitt Romney.

"What was the name again? I've never heard of him," Evans said after being told by a reporter that French was being called the choice of anti-Donald Trump activist William Kristol to make a third-party bid for the White House.

Even without knowing anything about French, Evans said he'll have his work cut out for him if there's a conservative alternative on the November ballot to tempt Republicans to stray from a party that's already divided over Trump.

"This does make my job harder," Evans said. "It's just another curve ball I have to deal with."

Pollster Dan Jones said he believes the number of Utah voters who'd recognize French's name "would be a very low, low percentage" even though the military veteran is a best-selling author of a book on the Islamic State fighters.

"He's not a household name, I know that," Jones said.

But Romney, the Republican Party's 2012 nominee and a leader of the "Never Trump" effort to keep the controversial billionaire businessman from winning the presidency, is already touting French.

"I know David French to be an honorable, intelligent and patriotic person. I look forward to following what he has to say," Romney said Tuesday night on Twitter.

Romney, considered a political favorite son in Utah, was courted by Kristol to make a third run for president but turned down the Weekly Standard editor after a private meeting in Washington early last month.

Still, Romney's name has continued to surface as a possible third party candidate. A Romney aide issued a statement Tuesday attempting to make his decision clear: "Nothing has changed. Gov. Romney is not running."

Just a week ago, French offered a plea for Romney to run for president again in an article in the National Review, calling him "the only man who can save us from future calamity" and insisting "there's still time for a better option."

French wrote that he and his wife "worked tirelessly to assist Mitt's campaigns in 2008 and 2012, even forming a group called 'Evangelicals for Mitt' to convince fellow Evangelicals that a Mormon was the right choice for the White House."

So far, French has not formally declared his own candidacy, but he did tweet that he was "incredibly humbled by and grateful for the many expressions of support."

Later, as his possible run was being debated on Twitter with the hashtag #FrenchRevolution, French tweeted, "All the normal political rules apply. The conventional wisdom has been right. An underdog can't win. Right?"

University of Utah political science professor Tim Chambless said while it is extremely tough for a third party candidate to win, French would have a chance in Utah if he has Romney's support.

"Usually, an endorsement only works for 2 to 3 percent," Chambless said. "But this is such an incredible year and Donald Trump is so unpopular in this state that a Mitt Romney endorsement, I think, would translate into far more."

Earlier this year, polls showed the state voting for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1964 with Trump as the GOP nominee, and Utah Republicans gave Texas Sen. Ted Cruz a big victory in the March 22 caucus preference vote.

Since then, however, they appear to be falling in line behind Trump now that their only other major party pick is the likely Democratic nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"They don't want the presidency going to the Democrats and possibly the Senate," Jones said. "If they're going to keep it, they've got to support Trump, in my opinion. But he's got to improve and act more presidential."

Jones said if French is on the ballot, it could encourage conservative voters to go to the polls who otherwise would have stayed home because they felt they couldn't support Trump or Clinton.

In Utah, unaffiliated presidential candidates have until Aug. 15 to file for a spot on the state general election ballot. They must gather the signatures of at least 1,000 registered voters and pay a $500 filing fee.

Evans said the issue with an independent candidate is that "millions of people have said, 'We want Trump.' What is starting to concern me is there seems to be some dismissal of that."

He said the Utah GOP is working to ensure that even if voters don't like Trump, they still turn out for the other Republicans on the ballot.

"'Never Trump' does not mean 'Never Republican' and that's what we need to be clear about," Evans said.

Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, wasn't sure how much of an impact French could have in Utah.

"I think David French is a completely unknown quantity in Utah. I would guess most Utahns have never heard of him," Karpowitz said. "The question is: Is Mitt Romney's endorsement alone sufficient to override people's party allegiances?"

He pointed out that the effort to stop Trump from securing the nomination failed.

"I would also say there's a limit to the influence that a defeated former nominee who does not want to run again can wield, even in Utah," Karpowitz said. "It would be different if Romney were running himself, or somebody else who was well-known."

Don Peay, head of Utahns for Trump, said he believes "Utahns will realize what is at stake and will vote for Trump." Peay also said Romney's legacy will be damaged by his efforts against Trump.

"A lot of my friends have said Mitt Romney has gone from a blue chip stock to a penny stock," he said, calling the former candidate he supported in past races "a sore loser."

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