Yes Virginia, Santa Claus is a Republican - at least when he's in Utah County.

Local GOP leaders this week found out from the Republican National Committee in Washington that Utah County is the strongest medium-size GOP enclave in the nation. As such, the county has been named "Victory Blitz '88 County of America."The recognition means a trip to the presidential inauguration next month for GOP County Chairman Steve Shallenberger and a present from Santa Claus: $10,000 award for local party coffers.

"I am really excited," Shallenberger said. "I'm proud of our people and the effort everybody put in in helping with a cause they believed in. I'm really proud to be part of it."

The Republican National Committee recognized two other counties - one small and one large - for success at the polls in last month's general election. In rating counties nationwide, the committee measured success by how effective programs were in generating votes at the polls, what percentage of registered voters voted Republican and how many offices were won by GOP candidates.

While only 58.8 percent of registered Utahns turned out for last month's vote, 83 percent voted in Utah County. Nationally, the turnout was 48.9 percent - the lowest since 1924.

Utah County GOP candidates captured 23 of 25 races, Shallenberger said. President-elect George Bush received 77 percent of the presidential vote in Utah County, the same percentage garnered by Sen. Orrin Hatch. And Rep. Howard Nielson received 74 percent of votes cast.

"It makes it really worthwhile," he said of county GOP success. "We feel fortunate to have the success we did."

Shallenberger credits Utah County voters with helping Gov. Norm Bangerter win a second term. The governor's strong showing in Utah County, he said, helped him overcome challenger Ted Wilson's advantage in Salt Lake County.

He attributes much of the party's strength to dedicated volunteers and leaders and to the party's "mass campaigning" just before the election.

"A lot of people participated in something very important," he said. "The goal was electing people who could provide leadership and vision, and hopefully we have done that. I think we have elected some good people."

Shallenberger, in his second term as county GOP chairman, said he will attend two days of Republican National Committee meetings while in Washington before attending the presidential inauguration.