SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney couldn’t resist grabbing a few more French fries as he was leaving a campaign stop Friday at Hires Big H that included a meeting with local business and political leaders.
The front-runner in the GOP presidential race jokingly explained after posing for a photo with one of the hundreds of supporters who turned out to see him that he didn't smile because he was still chewing.
It was the rare moment during his nearly 90-minute appearance that the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City wasn't beaming back at the crowd gathered at the popular drive-in to cheer on his second White House bid.
"Mitt not Jon," someone chanted briefly as Romney shook hands, posed for pictures and hugged children after delivering a speech from the bed of a red Dodge pickup truck that criticized President Barack Obama for failing America, especially on the economy.
"The American people are struggling," Romney said. "We need to have a president who has had a job if we're going to be able to create jobs. I'm excited and anxious to get America growing again, to put people back to work."
There was no mention in the speech of the other Republican candidate running for president who shares Romney's Mormon faith and ties to Utah, former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
Asked whether he thought Huntsman's entry into the race would affect his popularity in Utah, Romney told the Deseret News, "It's great to be back in Utah, to be campaigning here. I've got great support. Jon is a friend, and I wish him the very best."
In addition to the mid-afternoon stop at the original Hires Big H on 700 East and 400 South Friday, Romney also collected a minimum of $1,000 from supporters invited to attend fundraisers at the Orem home of APX Alarms owner Todd Pedersen and at the Grand America Hotel.
Huntsman also had a Friday fundraiser scheduled but moved the Alta Club event to Tuesday. The former governor and U.S. ambassador to China is also expected to hold a public event that will be announced Monday.
Jennifer Baker, an eight-grade U.S. history teacher from Layton, said she was among the 90 percent of Utah GOP primary voters who backed Romney in 2008.
"Don't get me wrong. Jon Huntsman has some good ideas," Baker said. But she said Romney seems to be the stronger candidate to take on the incumbent president.
Like many who braved a hot afternoon in the sun to see Romney, Baker was eager to see a contender for the White House up close since few come to the reliably Republican state for anything other than raising cash.
"How often do we get a presidential candidate in Utah ... that the regular, common folks can get to see," she said.
John Ward, chief financial officer of the Harmon's grocery store chain, joined Romney inside the restaurant to talk about the issues facing small businesses.
"I just think it's a unique opportunity to share insights of what we're doing here in Utah and what we see as holding us back from doing more," Ward said, including concerns over whether recently extended tax cuts will be allowed to expire.
Ward said he hadn't made up his mind about who to support in the 2012 race. "I like Mitt Romney. I like Jon Huntsman. I grew up with Jon," he said.
Also at the table was Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who expressed concern about the nation's rapidly growing debt. "It's foolishness, it's crazy. Our people are so upset about it," Bell said.27 comments on this story
Gov. Gary Herbert, who served as Huntsman's lieutenant governor, did not attend the event and was not scheduled to meet with Romney during his Utah visit.
Herbert has been careful not to publicly choose between Romney and Huntsman, but has noted he endorsed Romney in 2008. Huntsman backed the party's eventual nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain.
Romney was accompanied by his wife, Ann, and two of his five sons, Craig, and Josh, who lives in Salt Lake. Romney was expected to stay through the weekend but had no other events planned.