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SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney met privately with Utah supporters of his 2008 presidential bid Thursday, including Gov. Gary Herbert and state legislators.
Romney, the former leader of the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, held court in the Capitol’s Gold Room for nearly an hour late in the afternoon. Earlier, he spoke with another group of Utah backers at an event held in the Wells Fargo bank building downtown.
His stop in Utah is part of a 40-state tour to thank supporters around the country, and, presumably, build support for his as yet-unannounced run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2012.
He declined to comment on his intentions this election cycle after the closed-door reception, but told reporters it was great to be back in Utah, "a place of great passion and energy."
It depends on what we decide to do. But obviously, we're blessed to have a lot of friends here in the state and that means a great deal to us.
Asked if he would count on Utahns to back another run, Romney said, "It depends on what we decide to do. But obviously, we're blessed to have a lot of friends here in the state and that means a great deal to us."
His wife, Ann, told reporters, "he'd make a great president."
Herbert said Romney spoke to the group at the Capitol about "the rise of federalism and the fact that states need to be utilized as co-equal partner, not as a subservient partner. … I think that's something he could use in a campaign if he decides to run for president."
One person at the reception said Romney also bashed President Barack Obama on the national debt and suggested looking at entitlement programs and raising the retirement age.
Romney didn't tell the crowd what his political plans are, but shook hands, hugged and even kissed the many lawmakers and other officials urging him to run again. Most of his speech, which was met with applause, extolled Utah’s virtues and reflected on the Olympics.
"We have memories of this building," Romney told reporters, "Those were dark days when the Olympics were in trouble. The people of Utah came together in a way I don't think the world will ever forget."
Romney had little to say about a potential Utah rival for the GOP presidential nomination, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. Huntsman, who like Romney is a member of the LDS Church, is stepping down as U.S. ambassador to China in April amid rumors he's readying for a White House bid.
"Terrific guy," Romney said when asked if he would comment on Huntsman.
Herbert told the Deseret News in a recent interview he expects to support Romney again in 2012. "It's always hard when you've got two friends running for king of the prom," he said. "Both people are very talented."
Huntsman, who chose Herbert as his lieutenant governor, was praised by Herbert for "his intellect, his understanding particularly of international affairs. Those talents would serve him well as president."
But Herbert suggested it might be too soon for a Huntsman run.
"Politics is a lot about timing," Herbert said. "You've got to pick your right time to run and when you can maximize your opportunity. Whether that's now or 2016, who knows. My crystal ball is as foggy as anybody's. But Gov. Huntsman is certainly young enough to be a player on the national stage for many elections to come."
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a longtime Romney supporter who is also close to Huntsman, helped set up Romney's visit to the Utah capitol.
"A lot of people got on the Romney presidential bandwagon in 2008," Jowers said, noting an unprecedented 90 percent of Utah Republicans backed Romney in the party's presidential primary.
Jowers downplayed Romney's stop in Utah as mostly personal, but hinted an announcement may be coming soon.
"I think it's definitely fair to say Gov. Romney has done everything he would need to do to be able to run for president if he chooses to do that. Certainly there's no announcement yet," Jowers said, from any legitimate candidate.
"I think you'll probably see a bunch of people getting in in mid-April, or as late as early May," Jowers said. "Everyone one in Utah hopes he's one of them. Including me."
The Romneys were expected to spend the night in Salt Lake with their son, Josh, and his family, including a new 2-week-old grandson, their sixteenth grandchild. Also Thursday, he held a similar thank-you event for campaign backers in Idaho.