GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney may be struggling to win Tuesday's primary in Michigan after losing two other key states, but Utahns still have faith he can be his party's nominee.
According to a new Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll, 62 percent of Utahns believe Romney could win the Republican presidential nomination, and even more said he's still a serious candidate despite second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire.
Just over half of the Utahns surveyed, 55 percent, want to see Romney the leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and, like the majority of the state's residents, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints elected president in November.
But one-third of Utahns said they weren't sure who would end up being chosen to the nation's highest office. In fact, 19 percent said they believed a Democrat, Illinois U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, would be elected president. Only 17 percent said Romney would win.
The poll of 413 Utahns conducted by Dan Jones & Associates Jan. 8-10 has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent. The results come as Romney readies for what could be a make-or-break election for his campaign, Michigan's GOP primary on Tuesday.
"It would be easy to say the big one now is Michigan. But he's already prepared to say, 'If I show well, I'm staying in it,' and he has the money to do it," pollster Dan Jones said. "I don't think it's do or die."
Jones, though, said Utahns may be overly optimistic about Romney's chances after his losses to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, in the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3 and to Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire's Jan. 8 primary.
A Detroit News poll being released today shows the race a statistical dead heat, with McCain at 27 percent and Romney at 26 percent. Huckabee is third with 19 percent.
In Utah, 69 percent of those polled labeled Romney a serious contender for the GOP nomination, compared to 19 percent who said he was less or not at all serious. Because that question was not asked until the New Hampshire results were in, only 296 Utahns responded.
"I think some of that is hope," Jones said. "I don't know that they really believe that will come about."
He predicted after the poll that Romney would finish a close second to McCain in Michigan, with Huckabee in third place. "I think it's a three-man race," Jones said. "It isn't the most fatalistic primary if you lose. But Romney's got to show that he's close."
The Romney campaign knows that's what he has to do.
"We're very comfortable with where we're positioned as long as we're very competitive in Michigan Tuesday, which we expect to be," said Katie Packer, a Romney consultant in Michigan. "That means in the top two, tight."
Various Michigan polls taken over the past month have either Romney, McCain or Huckabee in the lead, and a RealClearPolitics.com average of the major surveys gives Romney a 0.8 percent lead.
Michigan was supposed to be a shoo-in for Romney, a native of the economically troubled state. His father, American Motors Corp. president George Romney, served as a popular three-term governor of Michigan in the 1960s.
But Romney's early support there "was to some degree soft because the other candidates weren't in any position to gain traction," said Vincent Hutchings, a political science professor at the University of Michigan.
McCain had been written off because of financial turmoil within his campaign months ago that led to drastic cutbacks. And until late last year, Huckabee was seen as having little, if any chance, of gaining support from voters despite his conservative Christian credentials.
All that has changed, of course. And it's unclear how much Romney, who for years has called Massachusetts home and served as that state's governor following the Olympics, can count on his father's legacy in Michigan to translate into votes.
"There's a lot of people in the electorate who were born long after (George) Romney served," Hutchings said. "It will provide him with some boost, but I don't think it's going to be a deal-breaker."
Packer agreed. "The George Romney name is enough to get you invited in. It may not be enough to get you invited to stay for dinner," she said. "I don't think anybody votes for somebody based on who their family member is."
Hutchings described Michigan Republicans as fiscally conservative but socially moderate. That could give McCain an edge, since he is portraying himself as a political maverick, an image the professor said "plays pretty well out here."
Romney, a successful venture capitalist, is focusing on the biggest single issue in Michigan, the lackluster economy. "The economy's been sluggish for years," Hutchings said. "Romney, to his credit, is taking that on."
Huckabee has tried to counter Romney's efforts in Michigan by repeating the same line he used on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno just before winning Iowa, that Americans want a president who "reminds them of the guy they work with, not the guy who laid them off."
Packer said Romney spent the first 20 years of his life in Michigan and is "still a good Midwestern body at heart. I think that comes across." She said Michigan voters appreciate his knowledge of the automobile industry.
Religion hasn't been much of a factor in Michigan, but Hutchings said there's always the possibility that might change in the privacy of the voting booth. Utahns polled believe Romney's Mormonism cost him in Iowa.
Sixty-nine percent told Dan Jones & Associates that Romney was hurt by his faith in Iowa, where evangelical voters made up an estimated 60 percent of Republican voters. Twenty-six percent said it made no difference, and just 1 percent thought being Mormon helped Romney.In response to the poll, Romney spokesman Gail Gitcho said he "is very proud of the support that he has received in Utah. Utahns know from the work he did at the Salt Lake City Olympics that Governor Romney is a proven turnaround artist, and he is the only candidate in this race who can turn around Washington with real, conservative leadership."
E-mail: [email protected]