Utah's "favorite son" presidential candidate Mitt Romney was back on the campaign trail in Salt Lake City Thursday, this time raising money for his former rival, John McCain.
McCain, the presumptive GOP nominee for president, collected some $400,000 at a private fundraiser held at the Grand America Hotel downtown where Romney urged Utahns to support the Arizona senator.
The luncheon event, which cost a minimum of $1,000 to attend and attracted several hundred prominent Utahns, was the first time McCain and Romney have appeared together since Romney endorsed his one-time opponent last month.
While Romney was still in the race, the pair had little good to say about each other. That wasn't the case Thursday now that McCain is counting on Romney to help boost his campaign coffers and considering Romney as a possible running mate.
"We are united as a party," McCain told reporters at an airport press conference before he and Romney headed off together to another fundraiser, this time in Denver. "What Gov. Romney can play such a huge role in, is that we have to really energize the party."
McCain acknowledged the many people "who committed a great deal" to Romney's now-defunct campaign. In Utah, Romney raised an unheard-of $6 million and won 90 percent of the vote in the state's GOP presidential primary on Feb. 5.
"Having him on board," McCain said of Romney, "is saying to those supporters, 'Look, we as Republicans have to really be energized if we're going to win this election.' That's our challenge now."
Romney, who has spent time at his vacation home in Deer Valley since dropping out of the spotlight, said McCain has been "proven and tested and is an individual who is without question the right person to be the next president of the United States."
He said the support he has received from Utahns, both as a presidential candidate and as head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, "is something which is very heartening." Romney returned to Massachusetts after the Olympics, where he served a term as governor.
The pair even joked about Romney's landslide victory in Utah. "That wasn't the only state I lost to Gov. Romney; it was just the largest loss," McCain said of his 5 percent total in Utah. "I was at least hoping to break into the double digits, though."
McCain joked that "after getting over the abject humiliation" of the size of his loss in Utah he understood Romney's appeal in the state because of his role in turning around the scandal-scarred 2002 Olympics.
Even though McCain has been a critic of federal spending on the Olympics, he said Romney took charge at a time when there was talk of moving the event "and resurrected it, fixed it and made the Salt Lake City Olympics one of the great Olympic Games in history."
McCain had little comment about who he'll eventually choose for the No. 2 spot on the GOP ticket. Among the many names that have surfaced is Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., a longtime McCain backer.
Huntsman, a host of the fundraiser, also stood beside McCain at the news conference. But asked if either Huntsman or Romney would be his choice for v.p., McCain answered, "I can't say. Both of these fine gentlemen have earned a major role in our Republican Party."
Huntsman praised both McCain and Romney Thursday and downplayed any suggestion his own role in the McCain campaign was being overshadowed by Romney's appearance. Huntsman has campaigned for McCain in Florida and other states.
"It was important to have Mitt there," Huntsman told the Deseret Morning News in an interview, describing Romney as unifying people behind McCain. "I think people would get there eventually ... but having Gov. Romney there allowed it to happen instantaneously."
Huntsman said Romney's presence no doubt helped organizers exceed their goal of $375,000 for the event. McCain spoke about the economy and foreign affairs, Huntsman said, before taking a wide range of questions.
"Someone stood up and said, 'I originally was a Gov. Romney supporter and now I'm a McCain supporter,'" Huntsman said, adding he believed Utahns would follow as they learn more about McCain.
"I don't think there's any question about that. John McCain as a retail politician has been extremely successful. He tells it like it is. He doesn't pull any punches. He's honest with people," Huntsman said.
A Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll taken just after Romney withdrew from the race showed McCain had only marginally more support than Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. A more recent poll showed 54 percent of Utah voters backed McCain.
About a dozen protestors gathered outside the hotel Thursday morning. Clad in military fatigues, retired Air Force Lt. Col. George Muller said he organized the protest against McCain's support of the war in Iraq.
And Western Democrats joined forces Thursday to say that McCain will have to work to win the Western vote, despite the fact that he has been an Arizona senator since 1987.
"We don't believe he has an advantage in the West," said Colorado Democratic Party chairwoman Pat Waak.
Utah Democratic Party executive director Todd Taylor said the "winds of political change" are blowing through the Western states, and a McCain win is not a sure thing, not even in GOP-dominated Utah.
Taylor said there is still a sting from a Nov. 7 comment made by McCain's 95-year-old mother, Roberta McCain, about Mormons causing the 2002 Olympics scandal. She and her son both apologized immediately after her statement.
Utah Democratic Party communications director Bill Keshlear said recent polls that show McCain having 54 percent of Republicans is "historically low" for Utah."It hasn't been that low since 1964," Keshlear said. "John McCain is vulnerable on the issues in a whole range of ways."
Contributing: Suzanne Struglinski, Leigh Dethman
E-mail: [email protected]