Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: A look at the GOP convention from a Utah perspective

Published: Sunday, Sept. 9 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney shakes hands of delegates before speaking at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012.

Associated Press

The Democratic National Convention ended after our deadline to submit this column. However, the recent Republican Convention provided plenty of material to chew on (Frank is still chuckling at the performance of the American icon Clint Eastwood). We look at the convention from a Utah perspective:

Through the subjective prism of Utahns, did the GOP convention accomplish something beyond the nomination of Mitt Romney?

Pignanelli: "A political convention is like watching a game show where you already know the winners." — Sergio Bustos. On national broadcast and cable television, the Republican Party embraced members of the LDS Church — signaling that discrimination against a Mormon candidate is no longer acceptable in mainstream GOP. This was an important development for the state and the nation. (The Democrats reached similar enlightenment years ago when they elevated Sen. Harry Reid to the second-most powerful position in the country.)

Regardless of whether Romney wins, his candidacy allowed Americans to better understand — and appreciate — the wonderful qualities of their LDS neighbors.

But all was not positive for Utah last week. Most Utahns are competent, hard-working, ethical individuals dedicated to their community. Yet, the constant castigation of the Salt Lake City Olympics left the impression that Utahns were engaged in bribery and atrocious mismanagement. The Utah work ethic and drive to perfection was the prime force in the successful 2002 Olympics. Recognition of our state's fine qualities at the convention — when discussing the Olympics — should have been a constant element.

Webb: The convention was obviously fun, successful and even historic for Utahns, with several Utahns playing prominent roles — the Romney sons, Mia Love and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, with Mike Leavitt behind the scenes — and a Utah adopted son nominated as one of two candidates for the most powerful position on earth.

It was also a great week for the LDS Church, with Romney's religion and exemplary church service highlighted many times.

However, the Democratic Convention is also turning out nicely for the church. The "Democratic Mormon Caucus" event featuring Reid (still the most powerful Mormon in politics), was a nice touch, drawing more than 50 accredited journalists who produced dozens of national news stories. Church public relations people must be smiling as the worldwide church enters the mainstream with committed members representing a range of political ideologies. This is not your grandpa's small, Utah-centric, arch-conservative, Republican church.

What impact will the convention have on Utah elections in November … and beyond?

Pignanelli: Although not a member of the LDS Church, I am a native Utahn with a clear understanding of Utah's culture and history. (All my children share names with my wife's Mormon pioneer ancestors.) The emotion generated at the convention will be a huge factor at the election. For reasons yet unexplained, Utah suffers from one of the lowest voting percentages in the country (years ago it was among the highest). Politicos are expecting a massive turnout in support of Romney. Some are theorizing that this will lead to straight ticket voting. Candidates (especially Democrats) are drilling hard to discover whether this new crop of voters can be persuaded to cross the ballot. If not, this places Democrats in a tough spot for years to come.

Webb: Republicans win the vast majority of Utah races anyway, even without the once-in-a-lifetime, historic occasion of a Mormon running for president. Even in a normal election year, given the electoral math, Democrats need divine intervention to win a statewide race (pray, Scott Howell and Peter Cooke, pray). But the really tough thing for Democrats this year is that the two big races where the party has strong candidates and should have a chance of winning are also seriously endangered with Romney at the top of the ticket. Democrat Ben McAdams will have to run an almost perfect race against Republican Mark Crockett to become Salt Lake County mayor. And Rep. Jim Matheson will need to run the best race of his career to defeat Love in the 4th Congressional District.

What's up with Utah's other favorite son, Jon Huntsman Jr.? Was it shrewd politics or political death to avoid the convention and brag about it?

Pignanelli: The Obama campaign worried about facing Huntsman in a general election — for good reasons. If he was the nominee, the current discussion would be about his huge coattails. Traditional Republicans are grumbling about Huntsman, which reveals he is onto something. Most conservatives under the age of 40 are fiscal hawks but social libertarians. Huntsman is a natural leader of this movement — whether in the GOP or a third-party.

Webb: Huntsman clearly is still watching and waiting for the right political opportunity, but little chance exists for him to emerge in the current Republican Party. Ideologically, he is not on the same planet as current GOP leaders and foot soldiers. For Huntsman to be viable, voters must become a lot more disgusted with both parties than they are today. But if gridlock, hyper-partisanship and rampant political dysfunction continue into the next presidential term, citizens may be ready to turn to a centrist, either a moderate Republican or Democrat, or a third-party candidate.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as minority leader. His spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is a state tax commissioner. Email: frankp@xmission.com.

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