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SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert said Thursday he would have preferred that Utah had held a presidential primary election instead of this week's caucus voting, and he called for a return to the state-run primaries in the future.
"It is kind of a good news, disappointing news scenario. The good news is we had great turnout to caucus night, which is good, and we need to have that continue," he said during his monthly news conference on KUED Ch.7.
But the governor said it was disappointing to find out that Tuesday's turnout was down by "a significant amount" compared with the 2008 state-run presidential primary, nearly 200,000 voters.
The drop from the most recent presidential primary with competitive races for both major parties came despite campaign stops this year by four of the five candidates and a record $1.6 million-plus in TV and radio commercials.
"We've seen what's happened. We drove turnout. But we ought to drive turnout and have a presidential primary where we can have more people engaged and have more impact on the outcome," Herbert said.
Utah GOP Chairman James Evans said he still wants to see the party-run caucus voting for presidential candidates in Utah continue. Evans said the decision is up to the party, not the state.
"At the end of the day, this is for the political party," he said. "We feel good with what we've learned from the caucus."
Herbert said there was $3 million in his budget last year to pay for a presidential primary. But lawmakers decided not to appropriate the funds after the Utah GOP announced it was holding a preference vote at party caucus meetings instead.
"I think what we've learned is people want to vote in a presidential primary," the governor said, if it can be held early enough to have impact on the nomination process rather than waiting until Utah's traditional late June primary.
But Herbert stopped short of saying he was disappointed in his party.
"Until you try it, you don't know. Now we at least know what happened," he said. "We had a great caucus turnout, but we didn't have as many people as voted in a presidential primary before."
Utah's Republican and Democratic parties reported a total of about 280,000 participants in the caucus presidential preference election, including more than 24,000 who used the GOP's online option.
That's compared with more than 428,000 in the Feb. 5, 2008, presidential primary in Utah. Candidates eight years ago included Republicans Mitt Romney and Arizona Sen. John McCain, as well as Democrats Hillary Clinton and now-President Barack Obama.
The governor brought up his long-held belief that the country should use rotating regional primaries to select presidential nominees over four months to ensure all states have a say and every region has a chance to be first in the nation to vote.
'... the system needs fixing'
"I think the system needs fixing. I think the system is not delivering," Herbert said, because many candidates can't afford to compete beyond the first few states on the primary calendar.
Herbert said he backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz just before Tuesday's caucus vote over Ohio Gov. John Kasich because Cruz has the best chance to beat the party's controversial front-runner, businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump.
"I'm a practical Republican. I want to get the best person I can in the Oval Office that has the ability to get elected. The unfortunate truth is the numbers were starting to show that Gov. Kasich did not have as good an opportunity," he said.
Cruz won nearly 70 percent of Utah's Republican caucus vote, enough to take all of the state's 40 delegates. Herbert said he expects a contested GOP convention, with no candidate having enough delegates to secure the nomination outright.
He declined to say whether he would support Cruz beyond a first ballot at the Republican National Convention. The governor said he expects there may be "many different options" presented to delegates.
The election year is "really a puzzlement to many people," Herbert said. "I thought this was going to be the year of the governors. A lot of my friends were running and have fallen by the wayside."
Trump, he said, has been "kind of a rabble-rouser, a kind of bull-in-the-china-shop approach" that has caught on with voters. "I'm a little concerned about the lack of decorum. I think this is a significantly serious election."
Contributing: Ladd Egan