Which presidential candidate is sending paid staffers to Utah in the hopes of winning one of the most Republican states in the country this November? Here's a hint it's not the GOP's presumptive nominee, John McCain.
Believe it or not, it's Democrat Barack Obama who is telling his Utah volunteers that by July they'll have help rounding up voters throughout the state from several full-time, paid staffers.
"We really want to give the Republicans a run for their money this year, and I think we can," Nikki Norton, co-chairwoman of the volunteer group Utah for Obama, said of the campaign's planned investment in the state.
Solidly Republican Utah, of course, hasn't voted for a Democrat in a presidential election since 1964, when Lyndon Johnson was on the ballot. In the past two presidential elections, the state gave President Bush his largest majority of votes.
But Obama does have support here, winning the state's Feb. 5 Democratic presidential primary and nearly beating McCain in polls taken shortly after Utah's favorite-son GOP candidate, Mitt Romney, dropped out of the race for the White House.
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, easily whipped McCain in Utah's GOP presidential primary, with a whopping 90 percent of the vote.
More recent polls show McCain with a healthy lead over Obama in Utah. In May, before the Democratic nomination was secured by Obama, he was the pick of 27 percent of registered voters compared to 62 percent for McCain.
Norton remains enthusiastic, especially now that Obama has announced a new 50-state strategy that calls for staff to be maintained in every state. That strategy was the focus of a June 10 article in Time magazine that led with Utah's involvement.
The article quotes Norton saying the strategy could force McCain to spend time and money defending the state as well as help local Democratic candidates, even if Utah stays Republican red in November.
"We want to make him work," Norton told the Deseret News. "We have the resources to do it. We'll see if McCain has the resources."
She said her dozens of volunteers are already organizing in St. George, Logan and Kanab, holding volunteer drives and getting the word out about their candidate. Their efforts are likely to extend to surrounding, so-called battleground states as the election nears.
But Utah-based Tim Bridgewater, who volunteers for the McCain campaign as its Western states coordinator, isn't worried. "We appreciate the positive impact to our economy of bringing people in," Bridgewater said of the increased Obama effort in Utah.
McCain's campaign has no plans to bring in paid staff to Utah, he said, although people have been hired for specific events, including last month's fundraisers for McCain that offered time with President Bush and Romney for as much as $70,000 a couple.
"I think the current mode of the campaign is heavily focused on fundraising," Bridgewater said. "There are battleground states that are getting organized right now. Utah is not considered a battleground state."As the election gets closer, he said there could be an effort by the campaign to deploy Utahns to neighboring battleground states such as Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. In the last election, Bridgewater said more than 1,000 Utah volunteers made similar trips for Bush.