Utah voters now solidly support Republican John McCain for president over Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, according to a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll.
McCain, the GOP's presumptive nominee, was the choice of 65 percent of those polled over Clinton, and 62 percent when matched up against Obama. That's a big change from February, when McCain mustered support from only 30 percent of Utahns surveyed.
The poll was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates of 604 registered voters statewide May 13-19 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
While Clinton won Tuesday's Kentucky primary and boosted her delegate total to an estimated 1,776, Obama continued to approach the 2,026 delegate total needed to become the Democratic nominee, finishing the night with an estimated 1,956 delegates.
Even though the latest poll results show Utahns are warming up to McCain, when Utah's delegation to this year's Republican National Convention casts the state's 36 votes for a presidential nominee, it may not be for the Arizona senator.
The state Republican Party's current rules require that all of Utah's delegates continue to back Mitt Romney, who had 90 percent of the vote in Utah's winner-take-all Feb. 5 GOP presidential primary.
Romney, the former leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints like the majority of Utahns, had asked that his delegates shift their support to McCain after he dropped out of the race.
Even so, action on a resolution to change the rules so Romney's delegates would be free to vote for McCain was postponed at the state GOP convention earlier this month. Now it's up to the party's central committee.
So far, though, there seems to be little interest in dealing with the topic at the next meeting of the state party's central committee on June 14. The committee is made up of 200 or so party leaders from around the state.
"The best way to say it is there seems to be sentiment from the delegates at the convention that they preferred to have us vote on the first ballot for Mitt Romney," said Utah Republican Party Chairman Stan Lockhart. "It's too soon to tell what the end result will be."
Complicating the issue is an apparent move by some supporters of yet another Republican presidential contender, Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, to, in the words of one party official, "hijack" Utah's delegate votes. It's a tactic that has been successful in other states, including Nevada.
It may take the help of the Republican National Committee to come up with language that would release the delegates from having to vote for Romney but keep them from straying to other candidates.
Romney expects the Utah delegates to vote for McCain at the national convention, his spokesman, Eric Fehrnstrom, said.
"He's already made his feelings known," Fehrnstrom said. "At the end of the day, we're confident the Utah delegation will join delegates around the country in enthusiastically supporting John McCain."
Fehrnstrom downplayed any reluctance among Romney's Utah backers.
"This appears to be a symbolic gesture towards Mitt Romney because of his ties to the state," he said. "It shouldn't be viewed as a reflection of Sen. McCain's candidacy. Sen. McCain has strong support in Utah."
McCain's Western states regional coordinator, Tim Bridgewater, was also optimistic.
"I think the delegates will support John McCain," Bridgewater said. "The makeup of the delegation is overwhelmingly supportive of McCain."
The list includes Bridgewater as well McCain's biggest backer in the state, Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., who endorsed McCain early in the campaign and is one of the candidate's national finance co-chairmen.Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, is a Romney delegate who said he'll gladly vote for McCain. "Why cast a vote for a candidate who is out of the election," Valentine said. "I think it would be viewed as a little bit odd."
Contributing: David Espo and Sara Kugler, Associated Press E-mail: [email protected]
E-mail: [email protected]