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Mitt Romney retreat in Deer Valley seen as 'rock concert' for Republicans

Published: Saturday, June 23 2012 7:18 p.m. MDT

DEER VALLEY — Former Secretary of State James Baker said being among the GOP elite at a weekend retreat for Mitt Romney's biggest supporters reminded him of a similar gathering held nearly four decades ago in the mountains of Colorado.

Then-President Gerald Ford had brought together the nation's top Republicans to Vail to talk about what would ultimately be a losing election for him that fall against Democrat Jimmy Carter.

But Baker, who ran Ford's unsuccessful campaign and later served in key roles in the Bush and Reagan administrations, was much more optimistic Saturday about the outcome of Romney's bid for the White House.

"I think it's going well. I really do," Baker told reporters gathered outside the exclusive Chateaux, one of several hotels hosting the more than 700 Republicans attending the retreat. "We're going to have a different result. This year, we're going to win."

Another member of what's been called a Republican "Dream Team" of presenters at the retreat, strategist Karl Rove, told the Deseret News he was happy to be back in Utah. He later tried to avoid a group of reporters by sprinting to a waiting golf cart.

"I was damn good," was all Rove had to say about his presentation on the media before being whisked away.  

The retreat, which ends Sunday with a round of golf, is a perk for Romney's top supporters. The price tag for admission was contributing a minimum of $50,000 or raising at least $250,000 for the Romney Victory fund.

Security was tight for the event, with Secret Service agents and local law enforcement authorities patrolling the grounds. The hotel itself was closed to the press and the public, but a few reporters managed to mingle in the lobby with the well-connected guests.

A longtime Romney fundraiser looked around the crowded room and said it used to be tough to get many people to attend an event for the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics. That's changed since he became the party's presumptive nominee.

"Now," the fundraiser said, "they have to come."

Some of the big contributors and fundraisers were clearly star-struck. 

Californian Larry Conti showed off an autograph from Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, viewed as a GOP leader on budget issues. "I'm like a little kid," Conti said. "I'm just sitting there as a fan taking it all in."

Peter Ullrich, a doctor from Wisconsin, described the retreat as "a little bit like going to a rock concert. It's absolutely amazing. You see what's going on and what they're doing with your money."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, one the later presenters on Saturday along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, said he was surprised at how much information was being shared.

"I thought it would be more rah-rah," Chaffetz said. Instead, he said, donors and fundraisers got an inside look at "Romneyworld," including how decisions are made on a daily basis.

Chaffetz, a surrogate on the campaign trail for Romney, said there's a marked difference from the start of the 2012 primary season.

"When I joined Gov. Romney on the bus in Iowa for a week, it was just myself and (South Dakota Sen.) John Thune. There were several other empty seats," he said with a laugh. "Now it's hard to even get close to the candidate."

Romney held a cookout Friday night at Utah Olympic Park, mingling with the people providing the funding for his campaign. His wife, Ann, and Olympic gold medalist ice skater Dorothy Hamill held a tea Saturday afternoon.

Several Republicans viewed as possible vice presidential picks, including Ryan, attracted plenty of attention from attendees, Chaffetz said.

"A lot of people are getting their picture taken with who might be the vice presidential pick," he said, identifying them as "any one of the brand names in there, from Paul Ryan to Sen. Thune, to (former Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice."

Locals and visitors outside the hotel wondered what was going on, especially with the lineup of police vehicles and SUVs with tinted windows out in front. 

Jaime Masner, an analyst visiting from Durango, Colo., said she and her husband were on a bike ride when they spotted Romney being driven to the hotel. "He was reading the paper," Masner said, and didn't return their wave.

Store clerk Debby Pierce said she's spotted a few of the retreat participants, but they're not spending much on souvenirs.

"I can obviously tell that people in dress pants and shirts are not the normal people" that visit the mountain resort, she said.

Romney made no public appearances during his weekend retreat, but remains wildly poplar with Utah voters, according to a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll. The poll shows that 68 percent of registered voters support Romney in the presidential election while just 26 percent would vote for President Obama.

E-mail: lisa@desnews.com Twitter: dnewspolitics

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