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DEER VALLEY — At least six Republican contenders for the White House will be in Utah through Saturday to meet with a select group of former presidential candidate Mitt Romney's top contributors at an upscale ski resort.
Romney's E2 Summit, described as an opportunity for "influential business, political and global policy leaders" to talk about the country's future, will convene Thursday at the Stein Eriksen Lodge.
The invitation-only annual event, which started in 2012 as a fundraiser for Romney's second presidential bid, has since become a place for Republicans eyeing their own runs to seek support from the party's big-money donors.
Not only will some 250 guests hear from Republicans who are either already in the 2016 race or expected to announce soon, they'll be able to take part in special activities with some of the speakers.
Those include playing flag football with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and skeet shooting with South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, both already in the running. There is also a hot air balloon ride available with an unnamed special guest.
The other presidential hopefuls scheduled to speak are another declared candidate, former Hewlett-Packard Co. CEO Carly Fiorina, as well as likely candidates Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
Other speakers include news anchor Katie Couric; former NBA Commissioner David Stern; Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; General Electric Chairman and CEO Jeffery Immelt; and David Axelrod, President Barack Obama's former chief strategist.
Romney's endorsement "may well be the single biggest factor in deciding the Republican nominee, and no serious candidate wants to miss the opportunity to be with him." - Kirk Jowers, Hinckley Institute
The summit lineup "is further proof that Mitt Romney has become our country's most compelling public figure, as well as the GOP kingmaker," said Kirk Jowers, outgoing head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.
Jowers, a longtime Romney supporter, said Republicans are anxious to see who the two-time presidential candidate who now calls Utah home will back in what's already a crowded field, with 10 announced candidates so far.
Romney's endorsement, Jowers said, "may well be the single biggest factor in deciding the Republican nominee, and no serious candidate wants to miss the opportunity to be with him."
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, seen as the front-runner for the GOP nomination, is in Europe giving speeches in advance of an expected launch of his campaign next week and won't be attending the summit.
Another leading Republican candidate for president, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, has also reportedly been invited.
University of Iowa political science professor Tim Hagle said the summit could help narrow the number of Republican candidates in the presidential race if donors are ready to make decisions.
Hagle, who is active in the Republican Party, said the private event is not likely to have much effect on voters. Iowans traditionally cast the first votes in the presidential race in a January caucus.
Although the event may be seen as "over the top" by some voters, Hagle said most won't pay attention. Those who do, he said, understand that presidential candidates "really do need big-money folks."
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon noted that while the summit is underway at the Deer Valley ski resort, Democrats will be holding their annual convention nearby at Park City High School.
"We'll be in a public high school versus an elegant hotel. And we'll be eating pizza and hot dogs versus Chateaubriand," the leader of the state's minority political party said. "It's an interesting juxtaposition."
Corroon said he expects to see some big-name Democrats in Utah to raise money, including former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton campaigned in Utah in her 2008 run against Obama.
A year ago, Romney dismissed talk at the summit about drafting him to run again for president. He later seriously considered a third run but ruled it out earlier this year.
Hagle said the donors at this year's summit are likely ready to move on.
"The field is very strong this year for the GOP," he said. "So pick a fresh face."
Corroon, however, said it's too bad the Republicans won't consider Romney.
"I think Mitt Romney has shown himself to be an elder statesman," Corroon said. "Frankly, he'd be a better presidential candidate for them than many of the ones we've seen sign up, a better candidate than just about any of them."