An excited group of Utahns went to the presidential primary polls Tuesday and gave Republican Mitt Romney an overwhelming win and Democrat Barack Obama a solid but not-record-setting victory, unofficial results show.
All 36 Utah national GOP delegates go to Romney since Utah's, like many GOP primaries, are winner-take-all. Romney was running above 88 percent of the vote with 99 percent of the returns in. That would be the largest victory in a major contested race in Utah history.
Obama, a U.S. senator from Illinois, and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., will split the 23 Democratic delegates based on how much of the vote each got in Utah's three U.S. House districts. And so Obama ended up with 14 delegates to Clinton's nine, said Todd Taylor, Utah Democratic Party executive director, late Tuesday.
With just over 99 percent of the vote in, Obama was leading Clinton 56 percent to 40 percent as the newspaper's deadline approached. Obama was leading Clinton in all but a few of the state's 29 counties, including Salt Lake County.
There is little doubt what will happen in Utah come November one of the most red states in the Union, Utahns have not voted for a Democrat for president since Lyndon Johnson carried the state in 1964. So whether the ultimate GOP nominee is Romney, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., or former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, he can safely count on the Beehive State.
Romney almost a favorite son for Utah since he is a member of the LDS Church and ran the successful 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics will get 33 Utah GOP delegates, plus three other delegates, which are the state party chairman and the two national committee members. By Republican Party rule, those three super delegates, like the other 33 delegates, must vote for Romney on the first ballot at the National Republican Convention in September, unless Romney releases them first, said Utah GOP executive director Ivan DuBois.
Romney's possible exit from the national race will wait he announced from his Boston headquarters that he will continue his battle.
A record number of Utahns cast presidential primary ballots upwards of 400,000 voters. Salt Lake County saw voter turnout above 34 percent.
"We think voter turnout overall will be between 30 percent to 40 percent statewide. And that is very good," said DuBois. Most of those voters will be Republicans. Even if Romney doesn't go on to win the nomination simply having a favorite son in the middle of the presidential election is exciting Utahns, said DuBois.
Taylor says he is most pleased by the number of Utahns who voted in the Utah primary, one of 24 Democratic contests across the states this "Super Tuesday."
Before polls closed and actual ballot counting started, Taylor said perhaps as many as 100,000 Utahns could vote in the Democratic Party three times the turnout in the previous presidential primaries here in 1992, 2000 and 2004. But it looked like as many as 130,000 Utahns could have voted Tuesday.
"That is just great, really great," said Taylor.
"This is very exciting for us," he added. Democrats have been the minority party in Utah for more than 30 years, with twice as many Utahns identifying with the Republican Party than the Democratic Party.
Utah Democrats have six super delegates party leaders and Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah. And Taylor said those six super delegates can support anyone they chose, but are most are likely to support Obama after Tuesday's results.
So Obama can count on most of those six on the first round of convention voting.
On the Republican side, perhaps showing their libertarian side, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, actually out-polled Huckabee in Utah, even though both men were in single digits as a percent of the overall GOP vote, as was McCain.
About 35 Obama supporters at the Skybox Bar and Grille at The Gateway in downtown Salt Lake City cheered when NBC called the Utah Democratic race for Obama soon after 8 p.m.
As the Obama party gathered steam and more backers arrived in front of the vast TV screens, the whooping was even louder when the network called Kansas for their man.
Obama supporter Megan Riffe, Salt Lake City, shouted: "Go Obama!"
Riffe said she's delighted by the numbers of the Democratic turnout. "We're just really excited about how many people turned out to vote for Hillary and Obama."
Only about eight people showed up to a Clinton campaign party, a small and rather quite group. As Donald Dunn, a former Utah Democratic Party chairman and head of Clinton's Utah campaign, fiddled with a broken computer, he said that the Utah Democratic vote went about as expected, a close contest that will split the Democratic delegate vote between Obama and Clinton.Salt Lake County Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, a long-time Clinton supporter, said the real winner in Utah are Democrats as a whole.
Contributing: Joe Bauman and Arthur Raymond