Sen. Orrin Hatch, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman Jr. feel tea party heat in Utah

By Kirk Johnson

New York Times

Published: Saturday, March 19 2011 8:00 a.m. MDT

COALVILLE, Utah — Jacqueline Smith fits no one's stereotype of a political kingmaker. A home-schooling Mormon mother of five, Smith lives in a modest ranch-style house here in the mountains outside Salt Lake City with her husband, Cleve, a plumbing contractor.

But in the muscular arena of tea party and so-called Sept. 12 groups that have surged into dominance in Utah over the past year, places like Coalville and the Smith house have become unlikely stations for politicians to come kiss the ring.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a six-term Republican who faces re-election next year, has been among Smith's supplicants, seeking the endorsement of her group, the STAR Forum — which stands for Save The American Republic — and others like it. Smith is not sold on Hatch yet, and she does not think too many others in the tea party community are either.

"I don't think he's winning over anyone," Smith said, smiling sweetly on a couch in her living room decorated with patriotic bunting and a giant engraved plaque of the Declaration of Independence.

In addition to Hatch, two other Republicans closely associated with Utah are likely to be in the national spotlight next year — Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, and Jon M. Huntsman Jr., the former governor of Utah, both possible presidential candidates.

And the three, Mormons all, are facing varying degrees of revolt where they might least like it or expect it — in their own backyard among mostly Mormon tea party members who are pushing for still more conservative fortitude.

"We oppose all three," said David Kirkham, a businessman who helped found one of Utah's first tea party groups.

Romney, who has family roots in Utah, blazed further into local life with his leadership of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. But he has since been besmirched, Kirkham and others said, by his involvement with a Massachusetts health care overhaul that is anathema to many tea party members who see it as a model for the Obama plan passed last year.

Huntsman took a moderate stance on many social issues as governor and also supported carbon emissions cap-and-trade legislation to reduce heat-trapping gases, another tea party no-no.

"On a good day, he's a socialist," said Darcy Van Orden, a co-founder of Utah Rising, a clearinghouse group, referring to Huntsman. "On a bad day, he's a communist."

As for Hatch, Kirkham said, "We have exactly the same game plan as we did last time with Bennett."

That would be former Sen. Bob Bennett, a Republican whose long political career was unceremoniously ended in 2010 when Kirkham and other tea party-inspired delegates swept into control at the party's state convention.

In a few quick votes, the delegates denied Bennett's renomination. One of their favorites, Mike Lee, a former clerk for Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. of the Supreme Court, ultimately won the general election.

That event, many Republicans here say, set the stage for everything leading to the 2012 election. The tea party showed it could throw a knock-out punch, and the candidates the tea party now opposes saw how it was done and are thus forearmed.

Hatch, in particular, is taking pre-emptive action by meeting with as many tea party groups as he can, said his campaign manager, David Hansen.

"Do I think we've made progress? Absolutely," Hansen said. "They may not agree with everything he has done, but they appreciate that he is listening to them and talking to them."

In at least 25 to 30 meetings over the past year, by Hansen's count, Hatch has "emphasized things they believe in and he has supported," Hansen said. "It's an ongoing process; it will continue."

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