SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert endorsed Republican Sen. Ted Cruz for president Monday after months of saying he'd like to see a governor in the White House.
The governor's choice put him at odds with former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, who announced last week that he's backing Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the only state leader left in the race. But Herbert falls in line with Utah favorite son Mitt Romney, who's supporting Cruz in an effort to deny Donald Trump the GOP nomination.
Herbert, chairman of the National Governors Association, said Cruz has conservative values that reflect Utah. He said he agrees with Romney's logic, even though he's been "partial" to governors and has great "reverence and respect" for Kasich.
"But I'm also a practical Republican," Herbert said. "And I see here in Utah that the pathway forward, the best opportunity we have to get the best man in office is Sen. Cruz."
Last week, Romney said the only way to nominate a Republican other than Trump is for Cruz to win as many delegates as possible to force an open convention.
Kasich's Utah campaign chairman, Rep. Kraig Powell, R-Heber City, disagrees with that strategy and sees Herbert's endorsement of Cruz as a political move knowing that Utah Republican state delegates are much more conservative than GOP voters overall. Herbert faces re-election this year.
The governor campaigned with Kasich and Cruz this past weekend.
Powell said the best way to beat Trump is to not vote for him, but next is keeping more candidates in the race to stop him. Kasich, he said, is more likely than Cruz to win upcoming primaries in the East and Midwest.
"People can see the choice how they wish, but I believe Gov. Herbert still does strongly support Gov. Kasich," Powell said.
And another former Utah governor, Republican Jon Huntsman Jr., didn't quite endorse Trump but said last month he could gravitate that way if Trump is the nominee.
Huntsman noted the split between close political allies Leavitt and Romney, tweeting last week: "Something stinks in Salt Lake City. Best friends Mitt Romney and Mike Leavitt supporting different candidates in Utah. Keep an eye on this."
Utah voters head to neighborhood caucuses Tuesday under the influence of the state's GOP heavyweights and an unprecedented amount of presidential attention.
Four of the five candidates seeking the state's 40 Republican and 33 Democratic delegates played to large crowds over the weekend, and one of them came back for an encore. The campaigns and political action committees bombarded television and radio with more than $1.5 million in ads.
A Deseret News/KSL poll shows Cruz ahead of Trump and Kasich among Utah Republicans likely to attend their caucuses.
On the Democratic side, the polls show Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who made a second stop in Salt Lake City on Monday, has the edge over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the only candidate to not make a Utah appearance.
Romney called on Utahns to vote for Cruz in an effort to derail the Trump train. The reality TV star and billionaire businessman has more than half of the delegates needed for the GOP nomination, though he's projected to fall short of 1,237 on June 7, when California wraps up the primary season.
The Deseret News/KSL poll released Sunday said Utah voters would reject Trump whether Clinton or Sanders is the Democratic candidate on the general election ballot.
While Clinton was only slightly ahead of Trump — 38 percent to 36 percent — Sanders was ahead 48 percent to 37 percent over Trump in the poll conducted March 8-15 by Dan Jones & Associates of 500 registered voters statewide.
Still, Trump has his supporters in Utah. About 1,200 people inside the Infinity Event Center welcomed their candidate Friday night, even as protesters against Trump faced off with supporters of Trump outside the center.
Leavitt argues that Kasich is the only Republican who could beat likely Democratic nominee Clinton in November.
Romney campaigned for Kasich in Ohio last week, a snippet of which Kasich has turned into a campaign ad. Meantime, a Romney robocall is telling prospective voters in Utah and Arizona that a vote for Kasich is a vote for Trump. The Arizona primary is Tuesday.
"This is a time for Republicans across the spectrum to unite behind Ted. He is the only Republican candidate who can defeat Donald Trump," Romney said.
Trump questioned Romney's Mormonism in a speech to about 1,200 people in Salt Lake City on Friday. Several thousand Trump supporters and detractors clashed outside the venue, though the confrontation didn't turn violent or lead to any arrests.
Sanders drew the biggest crowd with an estimated 14,000 people attending his Salt Lake rally last Friday.
As they cut through the rhetoric, Utahns heading to the state's first presidential preference caucus Tuesday continue to look for a candidate who best represents their personal views.
Voters identified honesty and integrity as the most important personal characteristics they look for in a presidential candidate, followed by acting with civility and respect, even toward rivals, according to the poll.
Utahns also want a president who would restore the country to values it seems to have lost, improve the economy and reach across party lines to bring about change, the poll shows. The survey also shows the economy is the top issue for voters in the state, followed by national security and health care.
Where to vote
Caucus meetings will be held Tuesday. Democrats will gather at neighborhood meeting places from 6 to 8:30 p.m.; Republican meetings are scheduled to run from 7 to 9 p.m.27 comments on this story
Caucus locations are different from polling places. Voters can find their neighborhood caucus location at vote.utah.gov. There are 2,100 Republican meeting sites, and 90 locations for Democrats.
Contributing: Katie McKellar
Twitter: dennisromboy; DNewsPolitics