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SALT LAKE CITY — Now that Mitt Romney appears to have no real competition for the GOP presidential nomination, his supporters said Utahns should realize the battle is really just getting started.
"Now it gets tough," Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said after Romney's chief GOP rival, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, announced Tuesday he was suspending his bid for nomination.
With only former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, still in the race, Romney is shifting the focus of his campaign to November's general election against President Barack Obama.
Chaffetz said Utahns shouldn’t underestimate just how contentious and costly that race will be.
"The scrutiny between now and November will be just unrelenting," he said. "Whatever jabs or blows Romney's been taking, they turn into a full onslaught going forward. The White House will not hold back."
That scrutiny could turn new attention to Romney's Mormon faith, Chaffetz said, as well as his professional background, including his leadership of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.
"We haven't had somebody who felt like one of us before," Chaffetz said. "Hopefully, the religious side of things will be dealt with appropriately. We've got to be careful in this country how we attack people."
He stopped short, however, of the statement made last week by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that the Obama campaign was going "to throw the Mormon church" at Romney "like you can't believe."
Instead, Chaffetz said questions about Romney's beliefs and background could be a positive. "We shouldn't be bashful about that. We shouldn't be defensive about that. It's good," he said.
Obama's campaign has said "attacking a candidate's religion is out of bounds, and our campaign will not engage in it," and Atlanta-based GOP strategist Joel McElhannon said Democrats would be hard-pressed to take up the issue.
But McElhannon said, Democrats won't have a problem going after Romney's personal wealth, accumulated through a career of buying and selling troubled businesses.
"I would fully expect the Obama campaign to turn this whole election into one of the most disgusting displays of class warfare this country has ever seen," he said, predicting the 2012 presidential race may be the most expensive ever.
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime Romney supporter, said Utahns should expect to be hit up for contributions by the Romney campaign.
"It's going to be an epic general election," Jowers said. "I think it will be incredibly hard fought and come down to the wire."
Romney is expected to begin raising money soon for the general election, Jowers said, including at as-yet unscheduled stops in Utah. "He'll need every penny of it to compete with Obama."
University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said Santorum's conservative stands have already been used by Democrats to hurt the GOP.
"The whole discussion about conception, etc., may have done Romney and their Republican brand some real damage, especially among women voters," Scala said.
The primary battle, which has raged on since the first election in Iowa on Jan. 3 that eventually went to Santorum, also exposed Romney's weaknesses, he said, especially among socially conservative, rural and blue-collar voters.
"It's unclear how Romney will distinguish himself as a candidate and as a person, other than as a business-minded Republican," Scala said, an image that might not motivate Santorum's supporters to go to the polls in the general election.
Santorum's announcement did not include an endorsement of Romney but that is expected in the coming weeks.
"It usually takes a while for the wounds to heal," said Dave Woodard, a political science professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. "He's conducted himself well, he's run a good campaign. He's been a decent candidate and decent candidates endorse the winner."
That endorsement could come in conjunction with Pennsylvania's April 24 primary. The expectation was that Santorum would stay in the race at least until his home state voted, but he was slipping in the polls.
Santorum lost his reelection bid to the U.S. Senate six years ago in Pennsylvania, something he didn't want to repeat, Woodard said. "They broke his heart once in 2006 and he sure didn't want to let them do it again."
Utah Republicans are looking forward to Romney being at the top of the ticket on the November ballot.
"Voter turnout in Utah will be at 105 percent," Chaffetz said. "We'll have people voting we didn’t' even know were alive. If you're a Democrat this year in Utah, wow. Good luck."
State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis tried to sound upbeat about his party's chances, but joked that with Santorum officially out of the race, "I've had to pull all those Santorum bumper stickers off my car."
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