SALT LAKE CITY — Thanks to Mitt Romney, the head of the site selection team for the 2012 GOP National Convention said Tuesday she knows more about Salt Lake City than the other two cities competing to host the event: Tampa, Fla., and Phoenix.
But Holly Hughes, a Republican national committeewoman from Michigan, was careful not to make any comparisons among the cities at the team's only media availability during their three-day tour, set to end midday Wednesday.
Instead, Hughes praised Salt Lake's experience in securing the 2002 Winter Olympics headed by Romney, who made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination two years ago and is widely expected to run again.
"During his campaign, he spoke highly of Salt Lake City. I heard so many Salt Lake Olympics stories and how wonderful you are," Hughes said, noting that Romney is from Michigan, where his father, George, served as governor.
"It was a time when Salt Lake City showed its stuff, so to speak, and did a fantastic job and made a name for Mitt Romney," she said. "I think he did you a great favor, and I think you did a great favor to Mitt Romney. You helped make his career, and you can be proud of that."
Hughes dismissed concerns that Utah, headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, might be seen as alienating some Republicans. Romney, a Mormon, faced a backlash from conservatives in his party who did not believe he was a Christian.
"I heard that question when he was running for president, and I'm like, 'What is the big deal?' " she said.
When George Romney, also a Mormon, was governor of Michigan, "the sky did not fall down," Hughes said. Many on the site selection team were Romney supporters in the last election, she said.
There's been speculation that coming to Salt Lake to formally select the next Republican presidential nominee would hurt Romney politically because it would focus too much attention on his Mormon faith.
But who the party ends up nominating in 2012 isn't a factor in choosing the convention host, Hughes said.
"It's way too early," she said.
The team will make its recommendation in May, but it won't be final until the Republican National Committee meets in Michigan this summer.
The team focused instead on security, meeting with a panel of federal, state and local law enforcement authorities Tuesday, as well as considering facilities and finances. If Salt Lake is selected to host the convention, local organizers would be responsible for raising about $50 million.
Plus, Hughes said, they would also have to secure another $50 million from Congress toward security costs. All of the expenses of the convention, she said, must be guaranteed by the city and state.
The $50,000 cost of the city's bid is being funded through private donations raised by the Salt Lake Chamber. The chamber collected $2,500 apiece for tables at a dinner for the team held Monday night at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Gov. Gary Herbert was among the Republican and Democratic dignitaries at that the dinner, but Hughes said the governor never brought up his belief that Tampa will be the team's choice.
Herbert told the Deseret News that Tampa has "the inside track" because it was a runner-up to Minneapolis-St. Paul for the 2008 GOP National Convention and that Salt Lake has a better shot at the party's 2016 gathering.
"He has not said he is backing out of this," Hughes said, describing her conversation with the governor as focused on what makes Utah great.
She did joke about the weather in Salt Lake, which saw heavy snowfall during the team's visit.
"We do know that the snow does melt, and you'll have a great summer," she said.