Rom­ney, New Pri­mary Date Put Utah on the Po­lit­i­cal Map

For Once There Are TV Ads, Even a Can­di­date’s Of­fice

The Washington Post - - Politics - By Joel Achenbach

PROVO, Utah — The BYU Col­lege Democrats as­sem­bled Mon­day night in Diane Bai­ley’s apart­ment to watch the State of the Union ad­dress. Like so many col­lege kids in Amer­ica, they weren’t go­ing to sit through a SOTU speech with­out turn­ing it into a drink­ing game. So it was that ev­ery time the pres­i­dent said a cer­tain word (“ter­ror,” “en­emy,” “evil”) or man­gled the lan­guage (“nu­cu­lar,” “Zim­bawe”), they bolted down a bev­er­age. Of course, as Mor­mons, they had to stick to soda. They in­gested heroic, in­deed sick­en­ing, quan­ti­ties of root beer, ginger ale and 7-Up, even the rather edgy Moun­tain Dew.

They got louder as the speech grew longer.

“Ter­ror­ist!” (Gulp.) “Evil!!” (Glug.) “Nine-eleven!” (Burp.) When the pres­i­dent named Amer­ica’s great­est en­emy, the stu­dents roared — “Osama bin Laden!” — and, as stip­u­lated in the rules, ran out­side to roll in the snow.

Brigham Young Univer­sity is run by the Mor­mon Church and may have the most con­ser­va­tive cam­pus in the coun­try. Provo has been called Amer­ica’s most con­ser­va­tive city. You’d think a Demo­crat around here would be about as hard to find as Sasquatch. “It’s the same as be­ing a con­ser­va­tive at Berke­ley,” said Hyrum Sal­mond, a ju­nior.

What’s amaz­ing about Utah this year is not so much the pres­ence of out­spo­ken Democrats, but the fact that the state is on the na­tional radar to be­gin with. As one of the Su­per Tues­day states that will hold pri­maries Feb. 5, Utah is fi­nally in play.

This may be a ge­o­log­i­cally spec­tac­u­lar place, with the jagged white wall of the snow-laden Wasatch Moun­tains form­ing a back­drop to the gleam­ing tem­ples of the Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints, but when it comes to po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions it has been one of the dullest states in the coun­try.

The Repub­li­can Party has dom­i­nated the state, and the church has dom­i­nated the party. In the gen­eral elec­tion, Utah has been slot­ted, like neigh­bor­ing Wy­oming, as a red­derthan-red state. And in past pri­mary sea­sons, it held neigh­bor­hood cau- cuses late in the cy­cle, af­ter the nom­i­na­tions were wrapped up.

So be­hold now the flow­er­ing of pol­i­tics in the desert. Sens. Barack Obama and Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton are run­ning mul­ti­ple TV spots. It’s a bar­gain for the cam­paigns, what with just one me­dia mar­ket in the en­tire state. It is also ut­terly novel: No one here can re­call ever — ever — hav­ing seen a pres­i­den­tial TV ad in Utah.

Juic­ing in­ter­est all the more is the can­di­dacy of Mitt Rom­ney. Rom­ney, the for­mer gov­er­nor (and cur­rent res­i­dent) of Mas­sachusetts, is one of the na­tion’s most prom­i­nent Mor­mons, fa­mously turned around the 2002 Win­ter Olympics here, and might as well be a na­tive son. Po­lit­i­cal ob­servers ex­pect him to win here Tues­day by a wide mar­gin. “If he gets un­der 80 per­cent, I’d be amazed,” said J. Quin Mon­son, a BYU pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science. Rom­ney will be in Utah on Satur­day, but not to cam­paign. He’ll join thou­sands of church mem­bers at the funeral of Gor­don B. Hinck­ley, pres­i­dent of the Mor­mon Church, who died Sun­day night. “Our Prophet has passed,” said a text mes­sage that raced among BYU stu­dents soon af­ter Hinck­ley’s death. Stu­dents wore their Sun­day best to class the next day.

The funeral forced Obama to can­cel a cam­paign stop sched­uled for Satur­day in Salt Lake City. His wife, Michelle, will make the pitch for him here Mon­day. The big­gest cam­paign event in re­cent days has been the ap­pear­ance of Chelsea Clin­ton, who stumped for her mother at the Univer­sity of Utah in Salt Lake City. About 200 peo­ple showed up, many of them Repub­li­cans just curious to see a young wo­man who spent her teenage years in the White House.

She showed her­self an able sur­ro­gate, deftly han­dling ques­tions from the au­di­ence, then shak­ing hands and pos­ing for pic­tures with any­one and ev­ery­one. She let sev­eral young men take turns giv­ing her a hug, and then said, “That sealed the deal, right?”

One re­cent poll in Utah showed Hil­lary Clin­ton with a siz­able lead, but Mon­son, one of the lead­ing poll­sters here, cau­tions that the lack of a his­tory of pri­mary vot­ing makes it im­pos­si­ble to know how Democrats or Repub­li­cans will be­have on Feb. 5. For what it’s worth, Obama has an over­whelm­ing ad­van­tage among the BYU Col­lege Democrats, who have an e-mail list of about 600 names on a cam­pus with 30,000 stu­dents. Obama is push­ing so hard in the state that he opened a cam­paign of­fice in the re­mote south­west town of St. Ge­orge.

Still, Obama is some­thing of a blank slate here, Mon­son notes. Clin­ton, by con­trast, in­cites strongly neg­a­tive re­ac­tions among con­ser­va­tives, as any con­ver­sa­tion with vot­ers quickly un­cov­ers. “I don’t agree with any of her poli­cies, or ba­si­cally any­thing,” said Randy Wood, a Univer­sity of Utah stu­dent in the back of the room at the Chelsea Clin­ton event.

One fac­tor may be that many Utahns have tra­di­tional views about the role of women. Peo­ple here don’t like a wo­man who is “out­spo­ken and brash,” said Jill Baker, 22, a Univer­sity of Utah po­lit­i­cal science ma­jor. She’ll go for Obama: “I love Hil­lary, but one thing about her is she’s very po­lar­iz­ing.”

Exit polls in 2006 showed that 59 per­cent of Utah vot­ers iden­ti­fied with the Repub­li­can Party, and only 26 per­cent with the Demo­cratic Party. Out­side Salt Lake County, the ra­tio is even more skewed. Of the state’s Repub­li­cans, Mon­son said, 90 per­cent are Mor­mons. About 40 per­cent of Democrats are mem­bers of the church.

“We need more Democrats here,” said Repub­li­can John Carr, a Rom­ney sup­porter who knew Rom­ney when both were do­ing mis- sion­ary work in France in the 1960s. “It’s so lop­sided. . . . It’s not a two-party sys­tem here. They do what they want to do.”

Eric Harker, web­mas­ter for the BYU Col­lege Democrats, said he hopes that be­ing a Demo­crat will in­creas­ingly be seen as nor­mal in Utah: “Peo­ple here are re­al­iz­ing that the Democrats aren’t th­ese left­ist, baby-hat­ing, tree-hug­ging peo­ple.”

Rep. Jim Mathe­son, the only Demo­crat in the state’s con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion, said: “Be­ing a Utah Demo­crat, ob­vi­ously it’s a lit­tle bit of a lonely ex­is­tence.” He won of­fice in 2000 when his con­gres­sional dis­trict was con­fined to the Salt Lake County area, which has more lib­eral and more sec­u­lar vot­ers. But the next year the state leg­is­la­ture re­drew the bound­aries to in­clude all of east­ern and south­ern Utah. Mathe­son, a “Blue Dog” Demo­crat, has to ap­peal to Repub­li­cans if he has any chance of win­ning a ma­jor­ity: “If I get all the Democrats and all the in­de­pen­dents, I’m at a solid 40 per­cent,” he said.

The prac­ti­cal re­sult is that Utah will al­most surely go for the Repub­li­can nom­i­nee again this fall. Mon­son said the only chance the Democrats could have of car­ry­ing Utah — and it’s still a slim pos­si­bil­ity — would be if Obama ran against Re- publi­can Mike Huck­abee, who has an­gered many peo­ple here by what they see as his re­luc­tance to ac­cept that Mor­mons are Chris­tians.

Rom­ney’s pop­u­lar­ity trans­lates into abun­dant vol­un­teer work on his be­half. Repub­li­can stu­dents from BYU are wan­der­ing into the Rom­ney cam­paign of­fice in Provo to make calls for their can­di­date — coin­ci­den­tally di­rectly across the street from where the Democrats held their party.

“When was the last time there was a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign of­fice in Provo?” asked Eli Eyre, 24, a full­time paid Rom­ney staffer over­see­ing the vol­un­teers at the phone bank. A cou­ple of feet away, a young man on the phone with a Florida voter said, “Dog­gone it, I apol­o­gize that I had to be the 10th.”

That would be the 10th per­son from the Rom­ney cam­paign to call the voter.

The night of the Florida pri­mary, nine Rom­ney sup­port­ers gath­ered in the cam­paign of­fice in the Salt Lake City sub­urb of Sandy, hav­ing braved the latest win­ter storm to buf­fet the val­ley. They had no TV in the of­fice — Rom­ney’s op­er­a­tion is too ef­fi­cient to al­low un­nec­es­sary frills — but man­aged to fol­low the re­sults on Web sites, pro­ject­ing stream­ing on­line video on the wall. They ate cold pizza and nib­bled from a 96-ounce jumbo bag of mini- pret­zels. A cheer went up when Rom­ney briefly ap­peared to take the lead from Sen. John McCain.

But the num­bers be­gan go­ing in the wrong di­rec­tion. They be­gan click­ing on in­di­vid­ual coun­ties. Where was Rom­ney lead­ing? Where might he find more votes?

“Where’s the county we called? Where’s Hills­bor­ough?” some­one asked.

They clicked on Hills­bor­ough: Trend­ing McCain, de­spite all their best ef­forts.

“It’s early still,” said vol­un­teer Con­nie Nor­ris.

McCain be­gan pulling away. It was no longer early.

CNN called the pri­mary for McCain, and af­ter a mod­est bit of grum­bling (“McCain is full of crap, to be hon­est with you,” said vol­un­teer Dusty Wright), they clapped and cheered their can­di­date as he made his con­ces­sion speech.

“I’ll never give up hope. I have faith the Amer­i­can peo­ple will see the light,” Nor­ris said.

Con­ser­va­tives in Amer­ica need to mo­bi­lize on be­half of Rom­ney, Wright said. Con­ser­va­tives need to rec­og­nize that he, Rom­ney, is one of them — that the Mor­mon re­li­gion binds him rather than sep­a­rat­ing him from the con­ser­va­tive com­mu­nity.

“They don’t come more con­ser­va­tive than Mor­mons,” he said.

“Democrats aren’t th­ese left­ist, baby-hat­ing, tree-hug­ging peo­ple,” BYU stu­dent Eric Harker says.

PHO­TOS BY JOEL ACHENBACH — THE WASH­ING­TON POST

Diane Bai­ley, in don­key T-shirt at left-cen­ter, and fel­low mem­bers of the BYU Col­lege Democrats drink a non­al­co­holic toast at a State of the Union party at her apart­ment. Their po­lit­i­cal ilk hasn’t been the norm in con­ser­va­tive Utah.

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