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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
John Curtis, Republican candidate for the vacant seat in the 3rd Congressional District, talks with intern Troy Dougall at his campaign office in Provo on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017.

SALT LAKE CITY — John Curtis was still a BYU student when he was earning enough in commissions as a sales representative for a watch company to book a flight to Denver to call on customers.

Trouble was, at 24, he was too young to rent a car once he got there.

"So there I was, thinking I was a highly trained professional," said Curtis, the Republican in the 3rd Congressional District race. "The only place that would rent me a car was called Rent-A-Wreck. I just remember going down the road and the tires were making funny noises."

But he was able to make the situation work to his advantage when he pulled up to jewelry stores in the clunker, Curtis said. After all, he usually carried his hefty sample case of watches in the trunk of his VW Beetle.

Curtis' skill at connecting with customers earned him Citizens Watch Co.'s national Salesman of the Year honors at 25, the same year he graduated college and started a family with his wife, Sue.

"I thought that was pretty cool, that I had accomplished all there was to accomplish in life," the Provo mayor said.

Curtis stuck with sales for years, spending a year with his young family in Taiwan, where he served an LDS Church mission, as an adventure.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Campaign manager Danny Laub and John Curtis, Republican candidate for the vacant seat in the 3rd Congressional District, hold a conference call at Curtis' campaign office in Provo on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017.

But after stints totaling nearly a decade in southern California and Virginia working for O.C. Tanner, one of his former watch customers, Curtis said it was time for them to return to Utah.

Back home, he shifted to entrepreneurship at Action Target, a shooting range manufacturing company based in Provo. Curtis also briefly got involved with the Democratic Party in Utah County, as a leader and a candidate.

His first taste of politics was being elected student body president of Skyline High School. Curtis had a role model for winning an election — his mother, Dawn, the first female president of the Granite School Board.

"I think that planted the seed that that's not that far out of reach," said Curtis, who remembers tacking photocopied flyers for his mother's campaign to telephone poles around Salt Lake. "If she could do it, I could do it."

In 2009, Curtis won the first of two terms as mayor of Provo, the largest city in the 3rd District that was represented by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, until Chaffetz stepped down June 30 and became a Fox News contributor.

"It's fair to say I didn't really understand what it was like to be mayor," Curtis said, before quickly adding that he "enjoyed every minute of it. It suited me well."

Curtis had already announced he wasn't running again when the congressional seat opened up.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
John Curtis, Republican candidate for the vacant seat in the 3rd Congressional District, with intern Troy Dougall in his campaign office in Provo on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017.

What caught him off guard the most after becoming mayor, Curtis said, was "the difficulty of the public eye, and the constant 24-7 surveillance of the public and press and everybody, and just trying to navigate."

At one point in 2010, Curtis said he was so tired of critics always ready to jump in on social media that he told his wife he really needed a break. The next day, the historic Provo Tabernacle burned.

What helped him make the adjustment to a political world, he said, was seeing the job of mayor as "more about solving problems and getting things done." Curtis said he wouldn't be running if he didn't believe he could do the same in Congress.

He had to beat more than a dozen other Republicans for the party's nomination, including a losing effort to win the support of GOP delegates and a bruising primary where close to $1 million was spent on attack ads by out-of-state groups.

Curtis has been able to rely on his skill as a salesman to reach voters.

"Sometimes a stereotypical salesperson is painted as just trying to sell a product. For those of us who love sales, it's a lot more than that," he said. "At the heart of it, it's meeting people, building relationships and satisfying needs that they have."

Far ahead in the polls in what is one of the nation's most Republican congressional districts, Curtis would face another election in 2018 should he be chosen to serve the remaining year of Chaffetz's term.

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"What I would ask of the electorate if I'm fortunate to win is that they have a little patience with me," Curtis said, acknowledging he would be starting preparations for another race while he was still figuring out his role in Congress.

"I don't think anybody's ready for it," he said. "It's a reality."

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
John Curtis, Republican candidate for the vacant seat in the 3rd Congressional District, poses for a photo at his campaign office in Provo on Friday, Nov. 3, 2017.

John Curtis

Age: 57

Residence: Provo

Party: Republican

Occupation: Mayor

Political experience: Former Utah County Democratic Party chairman; ran for Utah Legislature twice, once as a Democrat and once as a Republican.