SALT LAKE CITY — Ask a Republican elected official in Utah if they're endorsing a second term for the sitting president of their own party and the answer should be obvious, shouldn't it?
Apparently not if the president running for re-election is Donald Trump.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, answered that question from CNN's Jake Tapper recently by joking he wasn't ready to say yet if he's going to write in the name of his wife, Ann, in the 2020 presidential election, as he did in 2016.
"We'll have to see how she does," Romney said with a laugh.
But when pressed about backing Trump, a candidate he criticized during the 2016 presidential race as a phony and a fraud, Utah's most prominent politician had little comment.
"I have not made any decision on that front, so we'll wait. This is way too early for that," Romney said. He did, however, have plenty to say about whether the president has failed as a moral leader.
"I think he could substantially improve his game when it comes to helping shape the character of the country," Romney said, reiterating his pledge to speak up when he disagrees with Trump.
He also pointed out that he believes "young people as well as people around the world look at the president of the United States and say, 'Does he exhibit the kind of qualities that we would want to emulate?'"
Some other Utah GOP political leaders have also exhibited reluctance to publicly get behind Trump's re-election, initially not responding to questions and when they did, offering little comment or stopping short of an endorsement.
Take Gov. Gary Herbert. His office initially said it was very early in the presidential race so there would be no comment on an endorsement at this point, suggesting a reporter check back next year.
When the Republican governor who's finishing what he has said will be his final term in office was later directly asked about endorsing the president, he talked about liking a lot of what the administration is doing for states.
Governors of both political parties appreciate being treated "as co-equal partners, not subservient partners," by the federal government under Trump, Herbert said during his monthly news conference on KUED.
Utah has been a big beneficiary, he said, with three Cabinet members visiting in recent weeks and another coming soon. Herbert just signed a forest management agreement with Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue at the state Capitol.
"That's the part I feel very good about. President Trump and Vice President Pence have not asked for my endorsement," the governor said. "We'll have to wait and see what happens down the road."
Herbert did, however, suggest an endorsement might come eventually.
"I don't know any reason why I would not endorse. I'm working very closely with the administration, but I work with all people in Washington, D.C.," he said when questioned about what might prevent him from backing Trump.
Trump's popularity in Utah has always lagged behind what would be expected for a Republican in one of the reddest states in the country. A Democratic presidential candidate hasn't won Utah since President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
But Trump finished a distant third in Utah's March 2016 GOP caucus vote, behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich. He won the state that November with just over 45 percent of the vote, his lowest margin of victory anywhere.
"In a typical year, it sort of goes without saying that Republicans will endorse the Republican standard-bearer," said Chris Karpowitz, co-director of BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy.
"Nationally, the Republican Party right now is the party of Donald Trump and he enjoys support from the vast majority of Republicans. That's less true in Utah," Karpowitz said. "Support for the president is softer than we would expect."
The political science professor indicated the reluctance of some elected Republican officials to endorse the president at this point may reflect their unwillingness to go against the views held by voters.
"One thing this indicates is that President Trump's coattails are very short to nonexistent in the state of Utah," Karpowitz said. "There's just no evidence that getting on board the Trump train is the path to re-election."
Former Rep. Mia Love is a good example, Karpowitz said. Love, a Republican, narrowly lost to Rep. Ben McAdams, now the only Democratic member of Utah's congressional delegation.
Although Trump publicly taunted Love for not accepting his offers to campaign in the state, Karpowitz said the president may have alienated even more of the moderate Republican and independent voters who ultimately decided the race.
McAdams and Rep. John Curtis, a Republican, both professed similar-sounding reasons for not endorsing yet in the presidential race.
Of course for McAdams, the 2020 presidential race is a different story, with some two dozen Democrats vying to be selected by their party to take on Trump in next year's general election.
"Congressman McAdams is focused on representing Utahns and their families, not the presidential election," his campaign manager, Andrew Roberts, said. "He wants to hear what ideas, values and problem-solving policies the candidates offer before making a personal decision about how he will vote."
Curtis spokeswoman Ally Riding said he's "focused on a robust legislative agenda on behalf of the 3rd District and will continue to prioritize this over an election nearly 18 months away. He doesn't have any comments or announcements at this time."
Sen. Mike Lee and Reps. Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop are all at least planning to back Trump's re-election.
"Sen. Lee is planning to support President Trump’s re-election in 2020. While Sen. Lee has a very different governing style than the president, President Trump has delivered important policy accomplishments," his spokesman, Conn Carroll, said.
Stewart is one of Trump's staunchest supporters in Congress, but he also did not deliver an outright endorsement.
"Congressman Stewart is planning on supporting President Trump in his re-election. Compared to the current Democrat candidates, he believes this administration is the best thing for the American people as we continue to fight against democrat socialism," his campaign manager, Adam Snow, said.
Bishop, who has said he will not seek another term in Congress but is reportedly considering a run for governor next year, was a little more direct.
"President Trump's policies have been undeniably positive for Utah and the nation. From national defense to the economy to public lands, we are far stronger now than during the last administration," Bishop said. "The president has made it known he plans to seek a second term. I support that effort."
For Greg Hughes, a former Utah House speaker also looking at a run for governor next year, there should be no doubt among the state's elected Republican leaders that Trump deserves another term.
"It isn't a question for me. I endorse President Trump for re-election," Hughes said, citing a list of the administration's accomplishments, including "reasonably scaling back" the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments.
Also on Hughes' list were approving Medicaid waivers, cutting taxes, creating jobs, strengthening religious liberties, appointing conservative judges, signing justice reforms into law and securing funds to fight the opioid epidemic.
"President Trump, under an avalanche of unprecedented negative coverage and political attacks, has been delivering on his promises," he said. "I like that the issues President Trump was elected to address are the very issues he's delivering on for Utah and the country."
Karpowitz said Utahns largely remain uncomfortable with Trump, particularly how he conducts himself as president, although that doesn't mean he won't end up winning the state again in the 2020 election.
But what Romney may be signaling by holding back an endorsement, Karpowitz said, is that "it's OK to be concerned about the president and his actions. So I do think that provides some cover to other elected officials."
It's also sending a message that there can be a new direction for Republicans nationally, he said, one that may take some time to register outside the state.
"I do think think Utah has the potential to represent a different brand of Republicanism, one that could be some path to the post-Trump world," Karpowitz said. "But right now, you'd have to say that's not the common position."
The governor lamented what he described as hyperpartisanship in Washington he sees as fueled by Democrats as well as the administration, and used what he called "the Herbert way of doing things" as an example of how to bridge the divide.
"We're all on the same team. We forget that sometimes," he said, seeking shared goals including a healthy economy, healthy families and a healthy environment along with access to health care and improved infrastructure."108 comments on this story
The differences are in how to achieve those goals, the governor said. "How I deal with things is I am a right of center conservative but I am moderate in tone and I am inclusive in process. I think that's how you get things done."
His advice for Washington suggests looking to Utah as a model.
"Everybody needs to dial it back a notch or two and say, 'Can we come together,'" Herbert said. "That's what we do in Utah. I can only deal with Utah, really. And in Utah, we are very good at coming together and finding compromise and rational solutions that reflect the will of the people."