SALT LAKE CITY — Students were sparse this week at Utah Valley University and the University of Utah because of spring break.
But both campuses were in a lively state Friday as visitors came to hear Republican presidential candidate Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who hosted town hall meetings there Friday, as well as a third at Davis High School. A fourth was scheduled for Saturday in St. George.
With him, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt traveled to each of Kasich's Friday events, saying the Ohio governor "has the best opportunity to beat Hillary Clinton" out of all the Republican candidates. Leavitt announced his official endorsement for Kasich on Thursday.
Kasich said he was "very pleased" with the support from more than 1,000 voters estimated to have attended his events Friday. He also said he was optimistic even though Mitt Romney, the 2012 GOP presidential nominee, announced Friday afternoon that he would be voting for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the Utah presidential preference caucus.
"Mitt can do what he wants. I have Gov. Leavitt's endorsement, and I like that a whole lot," Kasich told the Deseret News, noting that he recently had some support from Romney. "We move on. It doesn't affect me."
An open convention is the only path forward for Kasich in gaining the GOP nomination. But he said delegates are likely to choose him as the candidate with the most experience and who is most likely to win over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
"Delegates are going to look at two things: Who can be elected, No. 1, and No. 2, who can run the country. And I feel very good about what would happen there," he said. "Convention is just an extension of the campaign, no more complicated than that."
The Ohio governor is one of several presidential candidates making a stop in Utah in advance of Tuesday's presidential preference caucuses. GOP front-runner Donald Trump and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders addressed Utahns Friday, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz scheduled to make appearances Saturday.
Creating jobs, lowering taxes, criminal justice reform and balancing the federal budget were among questions from town hall attendees. Kasich cited economic recovery, reduced tax rates and diminishing recidivism rates in Ohio as examples of improvement and success he hopes to carry into the White House.
"People will make a decision based on who can be the best leader, and the record that I have, both in Washington and Ohio, is not only having conservative solutions, but really bringing people together," he said. "People will want somebody who's actually fixed problems who also has a vision for what they want to do."
Rich Wright, of Orem, was among the crowd at UVU. He said he favored Kasich's approach as being conservative but not overbearing.
"I like some of the things that he stands for, and I think, quite honestly, he's the least polarizing of all of the nominees at this point," Wright said. "I'm not really excited about any of the other candidates in the Republican Party right now."
Jordan Wells, a recent graduate of the U., said he was pleased that Kasich has seemed to remain "above the fray" when it comes to attacks from political opponents.12 comments on this story
"I think his message tends to appeal to more hope rather than fear or the bickering that's occurred constantly throughout the other campaigns," Wells said. "I think his message appeals to a large voter base that isn't being represented fully through Trump or Cruz."
Other Republican campaigns occupied little of the conversations for Kasich. Instead, he emphasized his confidence in being able creating better economic policies, making him more appealing to voters than Clinton.
"There's only three things that will matter in this presidential election: Jobs, No. 1, jobs, No. 2. And guess what the third one is? Jobs," Kasich said. "I can beat her in the fall."