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Is Mitt Romney's moment Utah's moment?

Measuring the impact of Romney's GOP nomination on Utah

Published: Saturday, Aug. 25 2012 1:01 p.m. MDT

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News) Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

TAMPA, Fla. — Many Utahns are eagerly anticipating positive publicity from having Mitt Romney, a Mormon with significant ties to the state, at the top of the GOP ticket this election year.

But there's also concern that as Romney's nomination is formalized at this week's Republican National Convention in Tampa, Utah and its predominant religion will be the target of new attacks.

Gov. Gary Herbert said while it's not clear what the state can expect, the chance for the nation to see Romney take the stage at the convention will help dispel any lingering doubts about Utah and the LDS faith.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints makes no endorsement of candidates and counts prominent Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., among its membership.

But Romney's faith will be front and center at this week's GOP convention as the candidate's personal story is rolled out, including his role in leading the successful 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Games, clearly linking the Republican nominee to Utah.

Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign stop at the Hires Big H on 700 East and 400 South in Salt Lake City Friday, June 24, 2011. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News) Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign stop at the Hires Big H on 700 East and 400 South in Salt Lake City Friday, June 24, 2011. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

"I think some of the apprehension of being amongst a lot of Mormons (in Utah) is being done away with," the governor said. "People will see his wonderful family, good values and that he's successful. They'll think, 'He's a Mormon. Utah has a lot of Mormons. Maybe they're like Mitt Romney,'" the governor, a strong Romney supporter, said.

Herbert said he's heard doubts expressed about the state over the years, including by participants in last year's National Governors Association meeting in Salt Lake City as well as from leaders of companies considering relocating to Utah.

What they've found — and what he says the world will see in Romney — is that Utah's Mormons are "just normal average people. Maybe extra friendly," Herbert said, making it difficult "to portray Utah as a state full of people you wouldn't want to associate with."

Mitt Romney greets people in the crowd after he meets with businessmen and politicians at Hires Big H Drive-in in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 24, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Mitt Romney greets people in the crowd after he meets with businessmen and politicians at Hires Big H Drive-in in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 24, 2011. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

Scott Beck, president and CEO of Visit Salt Lake, said there's no question a Mormon presidential nominee helps sell the state to tourists and conventioneers.

"The Mormon culture is so tied to our destination," he said. "The more normal and mainstream members of the LDS Church are perceived, the better it is for us. It's not the most exciting thing about Mitt's nomination, but it is in terms of what we do."

Beck said Salt Lake has previously addressed concerns that Utah is a peculiar place where visitors face being proselytized, including during the Olympics, when the question being asked was, "What's it going to be like to come to 'Mormonville.'"

The issue was raised again two years ago during the city's bid to host the 2012 Republican National Convention, he said. GOP officials ended up choosing Tampa over the other finalist cities, Salt Lake City and Phoenix, at least in part because Florida is seen as an important swing state in a presidential election.

Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, talk to their supports from the back of a pickup truck during a campaign stop at the Hires Big H on 700 East and 400 South in Salt Lake City Friday, June 24, 2011. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News) Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, talk to their supports from the back of a pickup truck during a campaign stop at the Hires Big H on 700 East and 400 South in Salt Lake City Friday, June 24, 2011. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

Utah's delegation to the GOP convention, which includes the governor and other political leaders as well as party activists and candidates, is expecting extra attention in Tampa.

"Utah is just really on the radar right now," state GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said after a day of party meetings in Tampa last week. "We're not just a flyover state. We're relevant."

At least two Utahns have speaking roles at the convention, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a key Romney surrogate on the campaign trail, and Mia Love, whose bid to become the first black GOP woman in Congress is being supported by national party leaders.

Wright said the Romney campaign is counting on the Utah delegates to help maintain a high level of enthusiasm for the nominee in the convention hall.

Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, greet supporters during a campaign stop at the Hires Big H on 700 East and 400 South in Salt Lake City Friday, June 24, 2011. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News) Republican presidential hopeful, Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, greet supporters during a campaign stop at the Hires Big H on 700 East and 400 South in Salt Lake City Friday, June 24, 2011. (Brian Nicholson, Deseret News)

"We're able to come to the convention and support the nominee with real conviction and real passion," he said. "They're asking us to step up and play that role. I think it's exciting."

Wright said he's getting questions from GOP officials in Tampa about Utah and the LDS Church, and said he sees little downside for the state in being the focus of so much attention.

But Chaffetz said Utah's image is already under attack — and that the situation is just going to get worse.

"It's going to be a level we've never seen before," he warned, citing an anti-Mormon billboard that mocks sacred church practices and is intended to promote atheism on display in Charlotte, N.C., the site of next month's Democratic National Convention.

The LDS Church isn't likely to be the only Utah target by those who don't want to see Romney defeat President Barack Obama in November, Chaffetz said.

Going after LDS beliefs, he said, will be "the primary way. But they'll want to make fun of drinking regulations, anything to discredit Mitt Romney, the fact that he lived and worked here," he said.

University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said Romney's nomination will bring out "the folks who don't like Mormonism because they see it as too conservative."

Hagle said any criticism of the faith's teachings "reflects back to Utah as the home of the church."

Such attacks don't represent the majority of Americans, Chaffetz said, noting Obama's election as the first black president "broke a lot of barriers and the fact that we have a Mormon nominee for president is also unprecedented. In many ways, the country has grown up."

To face the "faction of unscrupulous fearmongers who want to scare people about Mitt Romney," Chaffetz advised Utahns "to take a deep breath and stay focused on what's truly important."

The upside for Utah, Chaffetz said, will come if Romney is elected.

"I don't remember a president ever having such close ties to Utah," he said. "A Mitt Romney presidency will create a whole new dynamic. We've never had a president who understood Utah, let alone lived here." Romney graduated from Brigham Young University in 1971 before moving on to Harvard and his successful business career.

Matthew Wilson, a professor specializing in religion and politics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, said Romney's nomination itself is an important step in breaking down the "suspicions and barriers" some have about the LDS Church – and Utah.

"To the extent people have negative perceptions about Utah, they're almost always related to Mormonism. Otherwise, it's just a cool place to go skiing," Wilson said. "Less prejudice about Mormonism, if that's what comes out of this campaign, I think is to Utah's benefit."

Utah advertising executive Tom Love said Romney's nomination will help counter the "stories of nuttiness or craziness" that come from the state's association with polygamy and other controversial issues.

"Utah has a hard time being relevant on the national stage," Love said, as a small, reliably Republican state usually all but ignored by the political world. Now, he said, it will be seen as a place where the family values embodied by Romney are embraced.

"That is exactly what the Mormon Church tried to accomplish with their 'I Am a Mormon' campaign, acceptance and to be part of the mainstream," Love said. "But this is unpaid and more credible."

Dave Woodard, a political science professor and pollster at Clemson University in South Carolina, said he's seeing a shift in attitudes in the Southern state where some evangelicals don't view members of the LDS faith as fellow Christians.

A recent poll taken by Woodard in a South Carolina congressional district found that more than two-thirds of respondents were pleased with Romney's selection as the GOP nominee, even though former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich handily won that state's Republican primary in January.

"Part of what he's trying to do is rid the national consciousness of any prejudices people have about Mormonism. I think, and I'm speaking out of the South, he's been pretty successful," Woodard said, citing an anti-Obama bumper sticker he spotted that read, "Vote for the Mormon, not the moron."

NBC News political director Chuck Todd said Romney's faith was news four years ago, during Romney's first run for the White House, but not anymore.

"When you look at it now, it really became back-burner stuff," Todd said, noting reporters recently were invited to attend church services with Romney, "showing that it's a non-story."

University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said he doesn't believe Romney's connection to Utah is much of a story, either.

"I just don't think when most voters think Romney, the first thing that they think is Utah," Scala said. Romney was raised in Michigan and lived much of his life in Massachusetts, where he served as governor.

"From the outside looking in, there seems to be a bit of a disconnect," he said. "We New Englanders tend to think of Romney as one of us."

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