1 of 9
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Mitt Romney gives his keynote speech at the 2018 Utah Economic Outlook and Public Policy Summit at the Salt Lake Marriott Downtown at City Creek in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney declined Tuesday to say he is running for Senate in Utah, but sounded a lot like a candidate while onstage discussing public policy for more than an hour before a sold-out crowd of business leaders

"I've got nothing for you on that topic," Romney told reporters and those attending the 2018 Economic and Public Policy Summit about what is seen as an all-but-certain run this year for the seat now held by retiring Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

But the 2012 Republican presidential nominee had plenty to say about the lack of action on a number of issues in Washington, D.C., despite a Republican-controlled Congress and White House.

Without mentioning President Donald Trump by name, Romney said there has been "very little effort" so far to take action on the nation's "crushing" debt, an education system falling behind other nations and intergenerational poverty.

Dealing with entitlements is key to reversing the deficit, he said, pointing to his own proposals as a presidential candidate for Social Security and Medicare reforms aimed at "young people coming along" rather than those near or at retirement age.

Romney said Americans "understand we have to make some changes to these programs," noting in 2012, he won among voters aged 65 or older despite the call for reforms.

The $1.5 trillion GOP tax plan pushed by Trump will boost the economy long term, he said, praising the lower corporate income tax rate. But Romney also said the impact the plan will have over the next few years is not clear.

He said Utah has a lot to teach the rest of the country after showing a series of slides comparing the state favorably to the United States on a number of issues, including debt and job growth.

And about goodness.

Romney began his talk by recalling his time as the head of the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, later crediting the huge volunteer turnout by Utahns with helping make it "the best experience of my life — so inspiring."

Asked about his vision for the future of Utah and the United States, Romney spoke again about the "good people" of the state he now calls home after serving as governor of Massachusetts and running for president twice.

For a country to achieve greatness — a reference to Trump's "Make America Great Again" campaign slogan — Romney said there must be military and economic strength.

"But I think there's another component to greatness that we can't afford to lose and that's goodness. I don't think a nation can be considered a great nation that's not good," he said to applause, calling it a defining part of America.

"As we think about what makes Utah such a great state, it's not just its economic prowess, the fact that it's growing faster than others. It's a good state with good people," including the governor and other leaders, Romney said.

He then saluted those in the audience for not just the work they do to improve the state's economic vitality, "but also to have good homes, and teach your kids the kind of values and offer them the kinds of promise that goodness is associated with."

Romney offered a more pragmatic political analysis of the upcoming midterm elections, predicting Republicans "will do just fine in 2018" because Democrats are scrambling over how to address the nation's strong economy and job growth.

But he had little to say about whether he'd be a candidate.

The question of a Senate run was quickly shut down on stage during a question-and-answer session and again as a group of reporters raced alongside Romney as he left the downtown hotel ballroom.

"The time will come," Romney told reporters. "I've spoken about the topics I wanted to discuss today."

He said over the past few years he has given similar presentations to groups around the country.

Asked about a recent phone call with Trump after Hatch announced his retirement where the Senate race was reportedly discussed, Romney said he was "not going to get into private conversations."

He said there are "too many hypotheticals" to discuss what his relationship as a senator would be with the president. Romney has been one of Trump's harshest critics, labeling him a fraud and a phony during the 2016 Republican primaries.

Gov. Gary Herbert told reporters after speaking at the summit earlier Tuesday that he has encouraged Romney to run and sees him as a leader in the Senate.

“He’s well qualified to do it. He comes to the table with a lot of cachet,” the governor said. “He’ll hit the road running. I think he’ll have the ability to move up into leadership and have meaningful roles. He can do something most freshman senators only dream about.”

That could include taking over the top position in the Senate, now held by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Herbert said, to work alongside his running mate on the 2012 GOP presidential ticket, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc.

“Who knows, in my wildest dreams, I can see him becoming the majority leader in the Senate and Paul Ryan still being speaker of the House. Think about it, Romney and Ryan leading in the Congress,” the governor said.

Herbert said he’d like to know for sure what Romney is doing sooner rather than later.

20 comments on this story

“I think he’s trying to get his ducks in a line. I think the sooner the better,” the governor said, because other potential candidates who don’t want to run against Romney are waiting. But, he said, Romney has “got to do it in his own time frame.”

Romney’s longtime friend, Kem Gardner, told the Deseret News last week that Romney was laying the groundwork for a Senate run by looking for a headquarters and putting together a campaign staff but wouldn’t be ready to announce until later this month.

Gardner said Tuesday that Romney told him he appreciated what amounted to “an announcement without announcing.”