Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: The contest between Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr.

Published: Monday, Oct. 5 2015 10:00 a.m. MDT

Jon Huntsman Jr. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Jon Huntsman Jr. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

With two "favorite sons" in the race, the 2012 presidential battle is especially fun for Utahns to watch. The national media can't get enough of the Mormon angle, especially with the award-winning Broadway play "The Book of Mormon" selling out through the rest of the year. National political writers are calling us for updates on the Utah intrigue generated by the contest between Jon Huntsman Jr. and Mitt Romney. So we thought we'd join the fun.

Both Romney and Huntsman are aggressively seeking support, money and volunteers from Utah. Is this likely to cause a rift inside the Utah Republican Party for the next year?

Pignanelli: "But, y'all know, … I like Huntsman and Romney. Romney's a much better candidate than he was last time … Huntsman hasn't said what he's for yet, but I just kinda like him." — Former President Bill Clinton The competition for Utah support between Huntsman and Romney has highlighted, and solidified, the different approaches each has taken towards Utah.

Mitt Romney (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News) Mitt Romney (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

Romney has cultivated local Republican officials, while Huntsman has been more selective in his affections. Also, as governor, Huntsman was not shy about expressing opinions contrary to those held by most Utah Republicans (i.e., global warming and civil unions). The resulting support of Utah Republican officials for Romney was a non-issue — until Huntsman entered the race.

However, those Utahns with fondness for Huntsman and his family, regardless of Romney's popularity, are now receiving attention. Also, some Utahns are weary of Romney's pitch that he "saved the 2002 Olympics" from the incompetence of us Utah yokels. Most insiders believe the Olympics were on the road to recovery — the state and the LDS Church would not allow the games to fail. Many residents (including me) believe the logical choice to lead the Olympics was a Utahn — Jon Huntsman. After all, we were willing to entrust the leadership of our state to him only a few years later.

The Huntsman Romney contest will not harm the Republican Party. But it will publicize the emotions, previously unknown, that Utahns have for and against these candidates.

Webb: Romney has been running for years and has had much more time to cultivate support, so he's well ahead in Utah — both in the number of key leaders backing him and grass-roots voter support. The list of supporters he recently released was quite impressive. Romney is viewed a bit larger-than-life than is Huntsman, who suffers from the "prophet is without honor" syndrome. Huntsman does have some key Utahns supporting him, and if Romney wasn't in the race, he'd be the runaway favorite, except among some on the far right. Ultimately, Utah voters will united behind the nominee.

Romney was pushing for the Utah GOP presidential primary to be held in March instead of the approved date in June. The campaign rationale was that getting a nice early win in Utah would provide momentum and hand Huntsman a defeat in his home state. Should the primary be held earlier?

Pignanelli: Moving the primary will cost Utah taxpayers over $3 million. So long as Romney (and possibly Huntsman) are on a presidential ballot in Utah, no other candidate is going to pay attention to the state. Therefore, it's a waste of money.

Webb: This was a cute idea, but it would never fly. At a time of state budget crises, Utah taxpayers would never tolerate spending $3 million for 15 minutes of fame and a Romney boost. It shows the Romney strategists are thinking creatively and are willing to play hardball with Huntsman, but this was a non-starter.

What's the upside and downside from the Romney vs. Huntsman battle, the high-profile that these individuals will receive and their chosen faith, in the national spotlight?

Pignanelli: Each candidate one has a different approach towards politics and their religion — both articulate and attractive. Americans will learn that Mormons have contributed to our country's heritage, and could offer so much in the future. In the next year, many preconceived notions and prejudices will be dismantled and eliminated.

Webb: These are two solid candidates, and Utahns should be proud of both of them. Romney is running a very good race and has a real shot at winning the nomination. The nation is finally seeing the real Mitt Romney.

I love Huntsman's campaign approach, running as the adult in the race, a reasonable, competent leader who is out to tackle problems and make tough decisions, rather than engage in political attacks and pander to ideologues and extremists. If Huntsman will couple his "grown up" approach with realistic proposals and solutions for balancing the budget, entitlement reform, immigration and health reform — even if it's tough medicine — he will emerge from this race, perhaps not with the nomination, but with a great deal of respect and goodwill for future political engagements.

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

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