SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. Senate race between Mike Kennedy and Mitt Romney might be described as a tale of two candidates.
There’s the one everyone knows but who maybe doesn’t know Utah. And there’s the one who knows Utah but nobody knows. One comes with a national spotlight, the other a searchlight.
Take a couple days on the campaign trail last week.
As a two-time presidential candidate, Salt Lake Olympics leader, former governor of Massachusetts and successful venture capitalist, Romney is in demand as a public speaker.
On a recent Wednesday morning at Weber State University, he dispensed life advice to 340 high school students, the majority of whom are too young to vote, participating in Girls State, a program aimed at developing leadership and promoting civic responsibility in young women.
In response to a girl's question about how to deal with criticism, Romney told the teenage crowd: "Ignore the idiots."
"The people who are critical and get on social media and throw shade at you, those are the idiots," said the man who has thrown a fair amount of shade at President Donald Trump.
That afternoon, Romney, 71, gave the keynote speech at the Utah Innovation Technology Summit luncheon at the Salt Lake Marriott Downtown at City Creek attended by a who's who of Utah, including Gov. Gary Herbert, LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson and several GOP legislative leaders.
"It's unusual to be talking about my past, but that's why I was invited, not talking about my future or a candidacy, but instead talking about things I've done in the past," he said.
Over the weekend, Romney mingled with his former presidential running mate U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the ritzy Stein Eriksen Lodge at Deer Valley Resort where he held his annual political retreat.
Romney did travel to all 29 of Utah's counties before the state Republican Party convention and eats with voters in diners and at lunch counters. He holds "Mondays with Mitt" in parks where serves up his favorite meat, hot dog, and Twinkies.
But the public profiles of the two candidates couldn't be more stark. Someone wants a selfie with Romney wherever he goes. Kennedy is the guy people ask to take the photo.
While Romney hobnobbed with some of the business and political elite at Deer Valley last Friday, Kennedy was scheduled to meet with residents at two senior living centers in Sandy.
But when a reporter arrived at Cedarwood at Sandy, no one knew anything about the event. Apparently the Kennedy campaign canceled after the facility couldn't guarantee a large audience.
"He's not going to win anyway," said a woman in the lobby who said she watched the Kennedy-Romney debate last month.
The campaign also pulled from its calendar a meeting at Sunrise Senior Living in Sandy later that afternoon.
But in the evening, Kennedy, 49, talked to a dozen people, including two campaign workers and his wife, at the Payson Senior Citizen Center. He described growing up in poverty in Michigan, not "power and privilege," a direct inference to Romney, who also grew up in Michigan. He answered a few questions about health care and education.
Afterward, he said the "granular" nature of the campaign has been "really fun." He said he wants people to know him and who they're getting when they vote. Kennedy said he'd leave it to voters as to whether they think Romney is giving them the same thing.
"Right now, I'm here and he's in Park City, so there's a distinction there," he said. "But he does what he's doing and I'm doing what I do. I really do believe that personal touch is a big part of this campaign."
Kennedy's attempt to draw some national attention backfired. His apology to a Texas pastor for Romney calling him a bigot on Twitter didn't go over well with many Utahns. Romney called the apology "inexplicable."
Romney's big name, however, didn't win over enough delegates to the state GOP convention to avoid a primary runoff. In fact, Kennedy bested him, 51 percent to 49 percent, leaving both short of the 60 percent needed to win the nomination outright.
Conservative Republicans at the convention have forced popular Utah politicians into primaries in the past only to be crushed at the polls.
Romney has a 43-point lead in a UtahPolicy.com poll that came out near the end of May, a survey Kennedy calls a "practice test" that he doesn't believe reflects current voter attitudes. The winner of the June 26 GOP primary election faces Democratic Salt Lake County Council member Jenny Wilson. Mail-in ballots went out last week and early primary voting starts Tuesday.
Both candidates have ads on TV, sometimes appearing back to back. Romney, the self-proclaimed deficit hawk fighting to stop the national debt. Kennedy, the guy picking up the can instead of kicking it down the road.
Meantime, Kennedy continues to pound away at what he sees as the fundamental difference between himself and Romney.
"I understand this place," the Utah House member from Alpine said. "I don’t need a travelers guide to get a sense of what’s going on around here."
Kennedy points out that's he's a longtime Utah resident who practices medicine, started a business and served in the Legislature.
"All I’d say is I am who I am. I’m a doctor, he’s not. I’m a state legislator, he’s not. I’ve lived here and raised my family here," he said after a televised debate with Romney last month.
Romney said his business experience, service as a governor and 10 total years in Utah brings a different dimension to the race.
"I think those advantages will be helpful," he said. "To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, 'I won't let my opponent's youth and inexperience outside Utah become an issue in the campaign.'"
Romney said he's already received suggestions from several Republican senators on what role he might play in the Senate, particularly having been a former presidential nominee. He said he has campaigned with 40 GOP senators and has a personal relationships with some that could lead to collaborating on legislation.
Kennedy said he's knows Utah and Romney knows Washington. He said he doesn't know anyone in the Beltway and, therefore, doesn't owe anyone anything. Romney's strength is actually his weakness, Kennedy said, adding it wouldn't take him long to get to know people in Washington if elected.
Kennedy also has jabbed Romney about flip-flopping on issues such as gun rights and illegal immigration.
"When it comes to what people can say versus what they have done, there’s a difference. I believe my record is consistent and my opponent isn’t as consistent on those things," he said.
Romney said what Kennedy calls inconsistencies in his record are actually consistencies.63 comments on this story
"I’m running for Senate with the same policies I had when I was running for president," Romney said. "Utahns can rely on those consistent policies."
Early voting begins
While most of the election is being conducted by mail, in-person early voting opens Tuesday in some places and runs through June 22. Polling information can be located at vote.utah.gov People can still register to vote in person at a county clerk's office or online until June 19. New registrants or unaffiliated voters can affiliate at the polls with either party in order to vote in the primary.