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National conversations taking place about 'Utah, the great swing state'

SALT LAKE CITY — Now that the Republican and Democratic conventions have concluded, Utah voters are faced with a pair of presidential nominees they just don't seem to be excited about.

The reception Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton have received in Utah has led Chuck Todd, NBC News political director and moderator of "Meet the Press," to suggest the state could be in play this November.

"Utah, the great swing state," Todd told KSL-TV during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia that ended Thursday. "I think you are. I mean, there is something uniquely problematic for Donald Trump in Mormon voters. It's obvious."

Todd said after conversations with Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, and "the Romneys," it's clear "the combination of a Muslim ban and his rhetoric on religious freedom bothers a lot of voters in Utah."

Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, criticized Trump as a fraud and a phony earlier this year in Utah and helped Texas Ted Cruz win big in the state's Republican caucus vote in March with a last-minute endorsement.

Romney has made it clear he won't vote for either Trump or Clinton in November and has said he's taking a look at the Libertarian Party ticket headed by former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson.

Johnson told CNN last week Romney has spoken with him and is considering an endorsement. On Aug. 6, Johnson is scheduled to make an appearance at a Libertarian rally at the University of Utah's student union at 3 p.m.

Todd said with Johnson in the mix in Utah, the state is even more up for grabs.

"In a three-way race where everybody is in the high 20s, low 30s, anything can happen," the network political director said. Johnson was at 10 percent in a June poll of Utah voters, a number that expected to climb with Romney's interest.

Earlier this year, polls showed the state would vote for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1964 with Trump on the ballot, but he was ahead of Clinton, 36 percent to 27 percent in the June poll.

Trump and Clinton are both expected to send key surrogates to Utah to campaign on their behalf between now and November, an unusual move in such a solidly Republican state. But not unusual given the results this year.

Clinton's husband, former President Bill Clinton, is expected on Aug. 11 and Trump's running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, may be in Utah in mid-September, for Gov. Gary Herbert's annual gala fundraiser.

Neither Trump nor Clinton did well in the state's March presidential preference elections conducted at Republican and Democratic caucus meetings instead of a traditional primary.

Trump trailed both Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich with just 14 percent of the Republican vote, and Clinton was far behind Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders with less than 20 percent of the Democratic vote.

Trump, a billionaire businessman and reality TV star known for his bombastic style, has had a tough time winning over the Utah GOP, with many political leaders in the state's dominant political party reluctant to say they'll vote for him.

Some, including Reps. Mia Love and Jason Chaffetz, skipped the Republican National Convention in Cleveland where the Utah delegation attracted national attention by fighting unsuccessfully to force a protest vote against Trump.

Clinton, whose husband came in third place in Utah in the 1992 presidential race behind an independent candidate, may be doing better at bringing the state's Democrats on board.

Unlike Cruz, who refused to endorse Trump and said Republicans should vote their conscience in his convention speech, Sanders told his supporters in Philadelphia, including directly to those from Utah, they needed to defeat Trump and elect Clinton.

UtahPolicy.com Publisher LaVarr Webb, who writes a column for the Deseret News, said it's a confusing time for voters in the state. He said while Democrats will likely unite around Clinton, the GOP has a tough choice to make.

"This year is unique because a lot of Republicans just do not like Donald Trump," said Webb, who counts himself among the GOP members unable to say yet if they can vote for their nominee in November.

"There's nothing wrong with him being a billionaire and having strong feelings about issues," Webb said. But with questions about his stability and lack of "basic common courtesy, I have no idea how he would govern."

Webb said that's "a quandary for Utah Republicans and it'll be really interesting to see if the Libertarian ticket can pick up support," given that the GOP holds differing views on the legalization of marijuana and other so-called moral issues. Johnson, the libertarian candidate, has been a recreational marijuana user, but says he would not use it as president.

As a top aide to former Gov. Mike Leavitt, Webb said he got to know Johnson as a Republican governor who vetoed hundreds of bills and was viewed as "a little out there. And I think he still is."

But both Webb and University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said they expect the state to remain reliably Republican come November despite the uncertainty surrounding the major party nominees.

Republicans and Democrats are going to have to work hard, Burbank said, to ensure their voters show up at the polls. That may mean setting aside concerns about their nominees to focus on races further down the ballot.

"Particularly for Republicans, I think that's the big fear," Burbank said of voters deciding to sit out the election. "It's easy for Republicans to say, 'Look, we're going to win the state anyway,'" and stay home if the don't like Trump.

Utah Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka, a delegate to the GOP convention who helped lead the battle there against Trump, said she's planning to write in a presidential candidate in November but won't campaign against her party's nominee.

"My conscience will not allow me to vote for Trump," she said. "I think there will be people like myself who'll be writing in names. But I think overall, Utahns will be voting for Trump....We're still a Republican state and the Republican will win."

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon said even if Clinton doesn't take the state, he's counting on Republicans being willing to take a closer look at other Democratic candidates on the ballot.

"I think the Republicans are in a bad place this year. Donald Trump does not reflect Utahns or Utah values and it could affect them up and down the ticket," Corroon said. "He's a crude, crass loudmouth. Utahns are a classier bunch for sure."

CONTRIBUTING: Ladd Egan

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com

Twitter: DNewsPolitics