SALT LAKE CITY — Two months after he jumped into the presidential race as a political unknown, independent candidate Evan McMullin is surging in Utah polls and drawing large crowds of Republican-leaning voters fed up with Donald Trump's crudeness and antics.
The Republican stronghold of Utah is suddenly a toss-up state amid widespread rejection of Trump, with polls showing McMullin closing in on the Republican nominee and Democrat Hillary Clinton. It means that Utah may do what seemed unthinkable: Elect a non-Republican presidential candidate for the first time since 1964.
McMullin's stunning ascent into relevancy has everyone asking: Who is this guy?
The 40-year-old recounted his life story to several hundred people at a rally Friday night in a Salt Lake City suburb, acknowledging that he was a complete unknown three short months ago. "We weren't famous before we started so we've got a lot of explaining to do," he said.
Born in Provo, Utah — the heartland of Mormon country — McMullin spent his childhood in a rural area of Washington outside Seattle. He did a two-year Mormon mission in Brazil and then returned to Utah to earn a degree in international law and diplomacy at the Mormon church-owned Brigham Young University.
He spent 11 years in the CIA doing counter terrorism work before leaving the agency to get a master's in business administration from the Wharton School of Business and have a brief stint in investment banking. He later became a national security adviser for the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.
He was working as the chief policy director for U.S. House Republicans as he watched with amazement as Trump won the GOP nomination and no other conservative jumped in the race. By late summer, he realized he would have to run to give conservative voters an alternative to Trump and Clinton. Despite knowing he would endure ridicule and questions about his motives, McMullin went for it.
McMullin said a vote for him will not only help him win Utah — it will kick-start a compassionate conservative movement that will change the political discussion around the country. He says that movement will be open to people of all races and religions.
"No matter what happens on Nov. 8, if we can send a strong message from Utah and the broader Mountain West, it will change the discussion in Washington and across this country," he said. "The nation is watching what we do here."
He told the crowd that Trump is unlikely to win because of the billionaire's deep flaws, antics and myriad missteps throughout the campaign.
McMullin drew loud applause when he said, "A real conservative, when they see somebody else being attacked for their religion or because of their race, a real conservative will stand up and protect other people."
Some supporters said they were drawn to McMullin because they couldn't stomach voting for Trump or Clinton.
"It was my ticket out of the circus," said Leslie Reinhold about her support for McMullin.
Cecil and Tiffany Sullivan, teachers from a Salt Lake City suburb of Murray, came with their infant son holding a sign, "#Evan Help Us." It was the couple's fourth McMullin rally they've attended since they decided he would be their choice.
"We were kind of despairing about what we were going to do with our vote and then Evan came in," said Tiffany Sullivan.
Added Cecil Sullivan: "We like his polices better than anybody else; that he's for foreign trade, for ethnic diversity."
Undecided Mormon voters Preston and Jennifer Buss drove 30 minutes from their hometown with their three sons — ages 15, 13, and 1 — to see McMullin in person and see if he's worthy of their vote.
"I just want someone who is for conservative values," Buss said. "I don't believe abortion is good, that's a big one for us." Mormons account for about two-thirds of Utah's 3 million residents.
Damon Cann, a Utah State University political scientist, said McMullin has seized the opportunity created by the unpopularity of Trump and Clinton by persuading voters he's a better option than Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, whose policies don't quite jibe with Utah's culture. That includes being pro-abortion rights and accepting the legalization of gay marriage.
His choice of a woman as his running mate, Republican campaign strategist Mindy Finn, is just one part of his campaign that has endeared him to Utah voters, especially young Mormons, Cann said.
"People tend to have a higher level of social trust for people who are in the same group," Cann said. "LDS people find Evan McMullin to be trustworthy on the account he shares their religious identification."
McMullin, who is unmarried with no kids, downplays the role his religion is playing in his ascent.
"It's about principles. They're not only Mormon principles, they are the principles of millions of Americans," McMullin said. "I am the only true conservative in this race."
If McMullin wins Utah, he would be the first independent presidential candidate to win electoral votes since George Wallace in 1968.
Matthew Burbank, an associate professor of political science at the University of Utah, predicts Trump will narrowly win the state, making McMullin mainly an interesting historical footnote similar to Ross Perot's 1992 showing in Utah when he finished second to George H.W. Bush but ahead of Bill Clinton.
But he's among those impressed by how well McMullin has maneuvered this year's bizarre political landscape to earn widespread attention. McMullin's strategy to stake out general, conservative ideas seems to be working because most voters aren't looking for detailed plans about what he would do as president because they know that's not realistic.
"He's primarily a symbolic conservative," Burbank said. "As long as he holds that position, some Utah voters will look at that and say, 'I'd rather vote for him.'"