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Gary Johnson may have upset Utah Mormons, but here's how he still plans to win their votes

Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, once thought to be a potential darkhorse for the state of Utah in the 2016 presidential election, may now have a Utah problem.

During the Democratic National Convention, The Washington Examiner’s Timothy P. Carney spoke with Johnson about important national social issues, specifically religious freedom and the role the government plays in presiding over an individual’s religious beliefs.

Johnson didn’t seem too keen on passing “a law that allows for discrimination on the basis of religion” because “we're gonna open up a can of worms."

He told the Examiner that religious freedom is a “black hole” that can lead to more discrimination than the world needs.

“I think what you're going to end up doing is open up a plethora of discrimination that you never dreamed could even exist. And it'll start with Muslims,” he said.

Johnson referenced Mormons, too, in that line of thought.

"I mean under the guise of religious freedom, anybody can do anything," Johnson said. "Back to Mormonism. Why shouldn't somebody be able to shoot somebody else because their freedom of religion says that God has spoken to them and that they can shoot somebody dead?"

This comes as quite a twist to what’s been an ongoing recent narrative of Johnson wrapping up a chunk of the Utah vote.

In a response from the Johnson campaign posted by the Salt Lake Tribune and the LDS blog Millennial Star, the candidate responded:

“My reference to the LDS Church, made during an impromptu conversation, was an admittedly very imprecise reference to the violence that accompanied the Mormon’s early history in the 1800s — violence that was prompted by the persecution of the Mormons themselves by both the federal government and others. Absolutely no offense was intended, and I regret any that has resulted."

As I wrote about around the end of July, rumors surfaced that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who’s earned Utah’s favor given his LDS background and leadership with the 2002 Olympics, would endorse the libertarian candidate Johnson and his running mate William Weld.

Johnson even confirmed the possibility on CNN.

"I think he's considering the possibility of doing this," Johnson said, "of actually endorsing the two of us."

Romney’s been silent on the matter. But in June, Romney told CNN that he would vote for Johnson running mate William Weld if he were on the presidential ticket.

"If Bill Weld were at the top of the ticket, it would be very easy for me to vote for Bill Weld for president," Romney told CNN last month. "So I'll get to know Gary Johnson better and see if he's someone who I could end up voting for. That's something which I'll evaluate over the coming weeks and months."

These comments started speculation over whether or not Johnson could gain the Beehive State’s vote, in effect spoiling a presidential victory for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, two candidates that Utahns have yet to embrace. Trump still can’t wrap up the Mormon vote, and Clinton finished way behind Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary election.

The national conversation went as far as to call Utah a potential swing state in the upcoming election.

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

But now, because of Johnson’s recent comments about religious freedom, the former New Mexico governor may face a problem attracting Utah voters. After all, the LDS Church has supported religious freedom and almost half of Utah supports religious freedom legislation.

Still, the times may change, as Johnson looks to wrap up a potential Utah victory and, if all goes extremely well for him, time in the national spotlight. Johnson currently sits at about 12 percent in polls, which is just 3 percentage points lower than the 15 percent threshold needed to be included in presidential debates. CNN will host a Libertarian town hall event on Wednesday, though, that could bump Johnson’s numbers.

Johnson will also look to make Utah a big part of his strategy going forward since it could help put him on the national stage, according to Ron Nielson, a Utah Mormon who’s also Johnson’s campaign strategist.

“I think everyone can agree there’s a big fall-off from the Trump wagon in the state of Utah, so I think that opens some big doors,” Nielson told the Deseret News. “And I also think there’s a lot of Bernie supporters who don’t really know if they want to support Clinton, so that creates some space for us. I wouldn’t say it’s the most likely state, that would probably be New Mexico or Colorado, but things change all the time, and Utah is certainly one of the top rung of states and we’ll be making a lot of effort here. Johnson will be here all the time.”

Nielson told the Deseret News that there’s a chance Johnson can earn a national presidential victory. It all starts with increasing his spot in the polls and getting a spot in the debates. Then, he would need to earn enough votes in November that neither he, Trump or Clinton win enough electoral votes to earn the presidency.

When the campaign then moves to the House of Representatives, as the U.S. Constitution explains, he would then try to earn all the support from those in the house.

So, yeah, it’s a little bit of a pipedream, Nielson said. But it’s totally possible.

And it all begins with Utah.

“You’ve got two divisive, disliked candidates with gigantic negatives winning their party’s nominations,” he said. “People will be looking for a compromise candidate. He’s it. We want people to understand — this could actually happen.”

Herb Scribner is a writer for Deseret Digital Media.