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Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: The political prospects of Utah's favorite sons and stepsons

Published: Sunday, Feb. 20 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

The Deseret News recently released polling results dealing with Utah's favorite sons and stepsons, including presidential contender Mitt Romney, Ambassador Jon Huntsman, Sen. Orrin Hatch and Congressman Jason Chaffetz. The public opinion snapshot measuring the political prospects of these politicians has generated buzz and questions.

According to the recent Dan Jones & Associates survey, Hatch is leading potential challenger Chaffetz by 10 percent. Is this good news for Hatch, bad news for Chaffetz, or vice versa?

Webb: It's reasonably good news for Hatch. Other polls have shown him trailing Chaffetz. Among Republicans only, Hatch maintains a solid lead. But he shouldn't feel comfortable. Among those calling themselves "very conservative" (and probably more likely to become state delegates), Chaffetz was well ahead. What really matters is the sentiment of those who will attend Republican Party neighborhood caucuses in about 13 months. Hatch has taken a hard right turn (some say pandering) to woo conservatives who might attend the caucuses. He will probably spend $2 million just on grassroots organizing over the next year.

Chaffetz won't have as much money or a massive statewide organization. He will need to catch a big wave of populist anger to overwhelm Hatch, like the tsunami that capsized Sen. Bob Bennett. But if the economy improves and voters are feeling pretty good, Hatch might be able to get past the widespread perceptions that he's becoming fossilized, doesn't listen and is a fixture of the Washington establishment.

My bet: Chaffetz has a safe seat and won't risk it against Hatch. That won't stop some other young challenger from taking on the 76-year-old Hatch. Anyone who runs a reasonably good race sets himself up for the next one. Hatch can't stay in office until he's 100 … or can he?

Pignanelli: "The Senate is a place filled with good intentions, and if the road to hell is paved with them, then it's a pretty good detour." Hubert H. Humphrey. This is heartwarming for both politicos — but especially Hatch. The media has covered various conservative groups angry at Hatch — boasting they will take him out in 2012. For Hatch to suffer these early election attacks and hold a lead against the popular Chaffetz, demonstrates goodwill in the electorate. The results indicate that Chaffetz has developed a powerful base to launch a campaign to any position he chooses.

The polling underscores Hatch is running against himself. If he can remind voters of his accomplishments in their behalf, and what can be gained in the future, the challenges burdening him will be dismissed. Also, the results emphasize Hatch is in a better place than Bob Bennett. Because Hatch is taking nothing for granted and already campaigning upon this structure of support, he will be formidable in 2012.

Utahns apparently prefer Romney over Huntsman to be the nextpresident. Why?

Pignanelli: Huntsman has a knack for dropping political bombshells, without providing any explanation. After the explosions, he ignores damage control. As governor, he voiced a number of courageous positions for a Republican (i.e. support of civil unions, concerns with global warming, attacks on congressional GOP) but did not articulate rationales to Utahns. Political mavericks are popular if their independence is understood.

Romney is viewed as saviour of the Olympics and a pioneer of a serious presidential candidacy as a Mormon. Currently, there is a greater comfort level for the former Massachusetts governor. But Huntsman's assets cannot be dismissed. When he returns to Utah and mingles again amongst the hometown crowd, the popularity deficit between him and Romney will shrink.

Webb: To Utahns, Romney seems downright presidential, a mythical hero, while Huntsman was just a popular governor, a mere mortal. Also, Utahns aren't in the mood right now for a moderate Republican presidential candidate. They want someone who will go to Washington and do battle with the liberals, balance the budget and pay down the deficit. It's hard to see how Huntsman gets much traction in this election cycle. 2016 is his best bet if he can stay visible, or perhaps a hookup as a vice presidential prospect.

In response to a question about his presidential preferences, Gov. Gary Herbert, perhaps jokingly, suggested a Romney-Huntsman ticket. Although a number of Utahns have pondered the potential of such a ticket, is there a chance?

Webb: No. The two contenders don't much like each other. Two Mormon candidates don't make sense (even if Huntsman isn't "overly religious"). However, it's possible Huntsman could emerge as a viable running mate for some other GOP candidate.

Pignanelli: The best response is the adage regarding flying pigs. Yet, strip away references to religion and overabundant Utah connections, on paper the ticket is attractive. The men appeal to different but important constituencies within the country (Romney to traditionalists, Huntsman to the progressive GOP) and both offer a business perspective that will be popular in 2012. But for obvious reasons, the ticket is a dream (and an excellent dodge by Herbert to avoid answering uncomfortable questions).

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Previously he was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is 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. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.

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