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John Edwards

Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards is expected to collect more than $100,000 in contributions from Utahns during a three-hour stop in Salt Lake City tonight, and that's attracting new interest in the state from other Democrats in the race.

"They're saying they'd better make some calls and see what the potential is," Utah Democratic Party Chairman Wayne Holland said, ticking off a list of Democrats suddenly willing to consider coming to what's widely seen as a Republican stronghold.

Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina who served as the party's vice-presidential nominee in 2004 on a ticket with Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, is the first Democratic contender for 2008 to make the trek to Utah.

Three Republican candidates, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani have all been to the Beehive State to raise cash in recent months.

Now, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who recently formally entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, is "90 percent" committed to delivering the keynote address at the Utah State Democratic Party Convention July 14, Holland said.

Richardson would also be the featured speaker at the party's annual Jefferson & Jackson fund-raising dinner the night before, Holland said. And there's little doubt that Richardson would find time to raise money for his own campaign while he's in Utah.

"We certainly want to help him raise money," said one of Richardson's Utah backers, Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake. "I think the candidates, Democratic and Republican, have recognized the western United States is really a fertile ground."

Romero said that goes for Utah, too. At least when it comes to raising money, he said presidential candidates from both parties will buck the conventional wisdom that there's no reason to campaign in Utah because the state will always vote Republican.

And more may be coming. Visits to Utah from Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd are also looking more likely, Holland said, as well as possibly New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. Even Edwards may be back, he said.

The party had hoped Edwards would hold some sort of public event in Utah Friday, but there wasn't room in his schedule. "He gets here at 6, flying in from Los Angeles. He's got to be back in the air by 9 to get to Las Vegas," Holland said. "They just don't have the time."

But now Edwards is expressing interest in returning, especially since Utah's primary is Feb. 5, the same date as at least 20 other states. "With the February primary next year, he feels he could come back and do some major thing," Holland said.

Edwards is holding a $500-a-person fund-raiser at The Depot, a private club in The Gateway. Some 200 people are expected to attend, Holland said, including a few contributing closer to $2,300, the maximum allowable campaign contribution under federal law.

"That's pretty impressive for Utah," Holland said of the total. "I think he's going to see a great response."

Edwards will also hold a press conference before the fund-raising "to discuss his bold plans to change America," according to his campaign.