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Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Donald Trump speaks during the final night of the National Republican Convention in Cleveland on Thursday, July 21, 2016.

SALT LAKE CITY — Suddenly, it seems no one is talking about this year's race for the White House without bringing up Republican nominee Donald Trump's troubles in Utah, a state that hasn't voted for a Democrat for president for more than a half-century.

Even Trump himself acknowledged he has "a tremendous problem in Utah" during a campaign speech to a group of evangelical pastors in Florida on Thursday, telling them, "Utah is a different place."

Then Friday, the billionaire businessman confirmed he is working on an op-ed for the Deseret News that will run in the newspaper Aug. 21, calling Utah "an important state" for the campaign.

"We are a symbol. If he's struggling here, that indicates larger challenges," said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. "Right now, Utah is still up for grabs."

Karpowitz, who said Trump's difficulties with Utah voters could still be resolved before the November election, was shocked by the candidate's admission he's not doing well in the state.

"It's unheard of," the political science professor said. "If the Republican candidate is playing defense in Utah and has to expend resources in Utah, then that's not a good sign for the health of his campaign."

Trump's focus on such a reliably Republican state suggests the race for the White House may be all but over, said Matthew Wilson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

"The fact that Trump is spending any time courting Utah voters is just a testament to what a meltdown his campaign is in. Any Republican who has to expend effort to lock down Utah is headed for a pretty solid defeat," Wilson said.

But Don Peay of Utahns for Trump chalked up speculation about the state going to the Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Clinton, "to the dog days of summer. Everybody wants a story."

Peay said Utah "could be a state possibly in play," although he believes Trump will win. He said the campaign is already putting a staff in place in Utah.

Plus, even if Trump's "New York attitude and mannerisms doesn't play so well" in Utah, Peay said, "at the end of the day, after all the political theater, it's going to come down to the issues the country faces, which are significant."

Clinton is taking advantage of the situation. The former secretary of state made multiple references to Mormonism, Utah's predominant faith, in an op-ed for the Deseret News posted online Wednesday.

She quoted Sister Rosemary M. Wixom, who oversaw The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' Primary program, and referred to LDS leaders "from Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to Gordon Hinckley and Thomas Monson."

Clinton also cited a comparison of Trump's proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States to "when Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs singled out Mormons in his infamous extermination order of 1838."

Her pitch to Utah voters noted Americans don't always agree, but "when it comes to religion, we strive to be accepting of everyone around us,” because "it so often takes a village — or a ward — working together to build the change we hope to see.”

The op-ed, which followed one written for the newspaper by Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson about religious liberty and Mormons, attracted national attention.

Jason Perry, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said that may have forced Trump to talk about Utah.

"The reason why Donald Trump indicated he had a problem in the state of Utah was really because the story is out there that a historically red state is not rising in support," Perry said.

It's a story that's not going away anytime soon, Perry said, especially since there are other alternatives on the Utah ballot.

"Our voters can't be taken for granted anymore," he said.

A new UtahPolicy.com poll released Monday showed Trump was leading Clinton in Utah, 37 percent to 25 percent, but support for Johnson had jumped to 16 percent.

Not included in the poll was BYU graduate and former CIA counterterrorism officer Evan McMullin, who stepped down Monday as chief policy director of the House Republican Conference to run with the help of Stop Trump supporters.

Stuart Reid, who served as a GOP state senator from Ogden after switching his political affiliation from Democrat to Republican years earlier, said he's voting for McMullin.

"I met him the other night and thanked him for giving me a choice I can live with, because I could not in good conscience vote for either Trump or Clinton," said Reid, now an economic development consultant.

He said there's little Trump can do to win over Utahns like himself.

"It's more than just his foolishness. He's unwilling to learn and he's unwilling to discipline himself. In this world of ours, that just makes him dangerous," Reid said. "Whatever he does in a positive fashion, give him 24 hours, and he'll undercut it."

University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said many Utahns likely already have made their minds up about Trump in a state that may be the "epicenter of the resistance" to the controversial candidate.

Not only did Trump come in third in Utah's GOP presidential preference caucus in March, the state's adopted favorite son, 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, has been one of his harshest critics.

"The more he appears as if he's going to lose anyway, I think the more freedom Utah Republicans might feel like they have," Scala said. "They might say, 'You know what? I'm going to vote my conscience on this one.'"

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