SALT LAKE CITY — Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is the top pick of Utah voters in the GOP presidential race but is closely followed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, according to a new poll released Monday.
The national front-runner for the Republican nomination, business mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump, trails Cruz, Rubio and "don't know" in the UtahPolicy.com poll.
The poll comes the same day as Trump supporters in Utah announced the formation of the Trump for President–Utah organization in a news conference on the steps of the state Capitol.
Trump backers in the Utah Legislature announced Monday were Senate Majority Leader Ralph Okerlund, R-Monroe; Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton; Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville; and Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal.
Okerlund said Utahns will come around on Trump. He said constituents living in his expansive southern Utah state Senate district have made it clear they like what they're hearing from Trump.
"I think the more they get to know him, the more they see his values and what he stands for, the more they're going to support him," Okerlund said. "His popularity in Utah is going to pick up dramatically very soon."
The Senate leader suggested some of Trump's controversial statements, such as calling for Muslims to be barred from entering the United States because of recent terror attacks, may have been aimed at pleasing the most extreme Republicans.
"I think, like many people trying to get elected nowadays, he's trying to resonate with a certain group of people and he's done that," Okerlund said. "I think he's going to moderate and come more to the middle as the campaign progresses."
Still, Okerlund said, part of Trump's appeal is that "he is who he is. He's going to say what he thinks. And you're going to see that from Donald Trump more than probably any other candidate. He's not as worried about what a lot of people may disrespect."
Adams said it's "hard to agree with any candidate on 100 percent of the things. But generally speaking, I believe Donald Trump has the philosophy and the policies that will make America strong."
Utah's Trump organization will be headed by retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Robert Oaks, who said Trump "knows that a strong America is the best defense from terror and groups that would tear down our country."
The UtahPolicy.com poll found that 18 percent of Utahns would choose Cruz if the GOP nomination election were held today; 17 percent would vote for Rubio; 15 percent said they didn't know who they'd vote for; and 13 percent like Trump.
Among only Utah Republicans, Rubio has a slight lead over Cruz, 24 percent to 22 percent.
The poll was conducted Feb. 10-15 of 625 Utahns by Dan Jones & Associates and has a margin of error of plus or minus just under 4 percent. Voters were also asked their choice in the Democratic presidential race.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is the big leader among Democratic presidential candidates, with 41 percent of Utahns saying they'd vote for him if the election were today, compared with 19 percent for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Clinton, however, is ahead among only Utah Democrats in the poll, 51 percent to 44 percent.
Utah, which has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in more than 50 years, is not holding a traditional primary election this year. Instead, Republicans and Democrats will hold caucus meetings on March 22 to choose their nominees.
Caucus attendance is expected to get a boost from Utah's first-ever presidential debate on March 21. The Republican National Committee decided Saturday to add the debate because the nomination race remains unsettled.
The venue and the media sponsor have yet to be determined by the RNC, but state GOP officials say once that's done, they'll announce how tickets will be available to the public and how they will be distributed.
One of Trump's Utah supporters, Don Peay, founder of Sportsman for Fish and Wildlife, said it was a "95 percent probability" that Trump would appear at the Utah debate. Trump had skipped a debate in Iowa because of a dispute with Fox News.30 comments on this story
Most of Utah's top GOP officials have endorsed Rubio, including Utah's four members of the U.S. House and now Sen. Orrin Hatch. Hatch had backed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, but with Bush out, he announced Monday he was behind Rubio.
Hatch said Rubio is "the only candidate in the race capable of uniting our party and reaching independent voters we need to win the White House. Marco has a unique ability to effectively communicate detailed, conservative plans in a way that attracts people who do not normally vote for Republicans."