Utahns won't have a chance to see President Bush during his overnight visit to the state that begins this afternoon unless they're ready to write a big check to help John McCain's campaign.
Bush is expected to raise several million dollars for McCain, his party's presumptive presidential nominee, at private fundraisers in Salt Lake City and Deer Valley. The events are hosted by Mitt Romney and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.
The president, who will spend the night at a Deer Valley hotel after traveling by helicopter from Salt Lake City, is also to meet with LDS Church leaders Thursday morning before he leaves the state.
McCain won't be in Utah, but he should see a big boost to his campaign coffers. Bush, one of the GOP's best-ever fundraisers, is still popular in Utah despite record low approval ratings nationally.
"George Bush can carry the day in Utah," said Tim Bridgewater, McCain's Western states regional coordinator. He said the campaign is also depending on the appeal of Romney, McCain's former rival for the GOP nomination, and Huntsman, a longtime backer of McCain.
Romney, the leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, easily beat McCain in Utah's GOP presidential primary last February with 90 percent of the vote.
And Romney collected an unprecedented $6 million-plus from Utahns during his bid for the White House. Now, as one of just 10 people said to be on McCain's shortlist of potential running mates, Romney is tapping his extensive network of supporters again.
In March, Romney and Huntsman teamed up with McCain at a fundraiser held at the Grand America Hotel that was expected to raise some $375,000. The McCain campaign has not announced a financial goal for the latest events.
But with several hundred people from Utah and other states, including California and Texas, anticipated to spend as much as $70,100 a couple to mingle with Bush, Romney and Huntsman, the amount raised could easily exceed several million dollars.
"These fundraisers capitalize perfectly on an extremely popular sitting governor in Jon Huntsman and perhaps the most popular politician ever with Mitt Romney," said Kirk Jowers, director of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a Romney supporter.
Romney is holding one of the fundraisers at his lavish Deer Valley vacation home. Invitations for the early evening reception place the price at $70,100 a couple, money that will be shared with the Republican National Committee.
An earlier event today, originally set to be held at the Grand America Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City, has been moved to a private home in the exclusive Arlington Hills neighborhood above the Avenues belonging to Sam and Diane Stewart.
Bush was to have appeared at a $10,000-a-person luncheon followed by a $500-a-person reception at the hotel. Now, though, the event is being billed only as a reception and the cost of attending may have dropped.
McCain's campaign moved a Tuesday fundraiser in Phoenix also headlined by Bush from the area's massive convention center to a private residence, reportedly because of poor ticket sales. The cost of attending that event was as much as $25,000.
The Phoenix event was also closed to the press after being relocated, apparently out of concern about the Arizona senator appearing with an unpopular president. The last time the pair were together was at the White House in March, when Bush endorsed McCain.
Bridgewater said McCain likely would have attended today's fundraisers had he not already been in Utah recently. He said because Utah is so solidly Republican, the campaign is more focused on surrounding battleground states such as Nevada and New Mexico.Two protests are planned in Salt Lake City during Bush's visit, including an hour-long "Peace and Human Rights Rally" set to start at 5:30 p.m. at the Salt Lake City-County Building led by former Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson. The other is sponsored by Moveon.org, which challenges people to differentiate between McCain and Bush quotes, scheduled for the Salt Lake City Main Library at 6 p.m. It is actually one of more than 300 identical events being held nationally tonight, so its pairing with the Bush visit is mostly coincidental.