John Bazemore, Associated Press
Republican presidential candidates, from left, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, businessman Donald Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson participate during the CBS News Republican presidential debate at the Peace Center, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2016, in Greenville, S.C.
Utah has become a must-visit state. This only formalizes that by having a debate here. —James Evans, Utah GOP Chairman

SALT LAKE CITY — Republican presidential candidates are coming to Salt Lake City on March 21 for a just-added debate.

The announcement came Saturday from the Republican National Committee, which cited "historic interest" in this year's race for the GOP nomination for the decision to add at least one — and possibly two more — presidential debates.

Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said RNC Chairman Reince Priebus called him earlier in the day with the news that Salt Lake City had been selected to host a presidential debate.

"Look at the punch Utah has nationally in Republican circles. The Republican committee recognizes that," Evans said. "Utah has become a must-visit state. This only formalizes that by having a debate here."

Gov. Gary Herbert said in a statement he was "excited to welcome the Republican Party to Utah at such a critical time in the nominating process" and praised Evans and other party leaders for their work in bringing the debate to Utah.

Evans said he and other party leaders had long sought to bring a presidential debate to Utah, but the state, one of the most Republican in the nation, was not on the RNC's list of a dozen locations for presidential debates through March 10 in Miami.

That changed when the national party decided more debates were necessary. Evans said Priebus told him Salt Lake City was chosen because the state "has always been loyal to the party and you've always produced for us."

With the race still far from decided after Saturday's primary in South Carolina, Priebus said debates "have played a vital role in our nominating process this cycle," attracting more viewers than ever before.

"And as this process continues into delegate-rich March, that interest will undoubtedly become more focused and increase," he said, so more debate "ensures that Republican voters and activists will continue to see our candidates in action."

The RNC's debate committee has also approved, "if needed, a final debate" in New York City before New York's April 19 primary election. The next GOP presidential debate will be in Houston on Thursday.

Evans said the venue and the media sponsors for the Salt Lake debate have not been decided by the RNC. He said the state party will announce soon how its allocation of tickets to the debate will be distributed.

The debate will be held the day before the state's Republicans and Democrats hold caucus meetings that this year will also replace the traditional presidential primary election.

"Everyone will know about the presidential caucuses now," Evans said. "Even more importantly, Republicans in Utah will be able to see firsthand whoever the surviving presidential candidates are."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, who has been on the presidential campaign trail in Nevada for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, said it's an honor for Utah to host one of the GOP debates.

"Instead of being a flyover state, every camera that follows politics will be in our backyard," Chaffetz said, adding that means the candidates likely will be spending more time courting Utah voters.

He predicted by the time the candidates come to Utah to debate, only three will still be in the race: Rubio; business mogul and reality TV star Donald Trump; and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Many Utah GOP officials have backed Rubio, including Reps. Chris Stewart, Mia Love and Rob Bishop, as well as Chaffetz, Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper.

Sen. Orrin Hatch had endorsed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who dropped out of the race after a disappointing finish in South Carolina on Saturday. Neither the governor nor Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, have announced their choice for president.

The March 21 debate will also come the day before the Arizona primary and the American Samoa convention. About half of the Republican delegates will have been picked by then.

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