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Utah GOP leaders ready to support presidential nominee, won't say they support Trump



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SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jason Chaffetz just couldn't bring himself to say he supports Donald Trump on Wednesday, the day after the billionaire businessman became the GOP's presumptive presidential pick.

"I said I would support the nominee," the Utah Republican said when pressed to specify it was Trump he was backing now that both Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Ohio Gov. John Kasich have taken themselves out of the race for the White House.

Chaffetz, who campaigned for Marco Rubio before the Florida senator ended his candidacy, was much more comfortable talking about the GOP's need to defeat the likely Democratic nominee, former senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"My prime goal is to make sure Hillary Clinton is not the next president of the United States," he said. "There's a lot to like about Donald Trump, but my job is also not to be the cheerleader for the president."

Chaffetz was far from alone among Utah Republicans in having difficulty getting enthusiastic about a Trump run in the general election. The state's GOP caucus voters in the March 23 preference election gave Cruz all 40 of the state's delegates.

That vote came after the party's 2012 nominee, Mitt Romney, had given a high-profile speech at the University of Utah labeling Trump both a fraud and a phony, and then urged caucus voters to back Cruz as the best way to stop Trump.

Trump, already unpopular among Utahns for his many controversial statements about Muslims, Mexican immigrants and other groups, ended up in last place behind Cruz and Kasich, with just 14 percent of the vote.

Polls have shown that Utah, one of the most Republican states in the country, would vote for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1964 if Trump is the GOP choice in November.

Gov. Gary Herbert, who also backed Cruz just before the caucus vote, said Wednesday that Trump's emergence as the presumptive nominee "is another chapter in a very strange and unpredictable presidential campaign."

Herbert, selected as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July, said he plans to vote there for Cruz because "he lines up better with the principles and the values of Utah."

The governor said he hopes to have the opportunity to talk with Trump "and maybe vet him a little bit better" before saying he'll support him as the GOP nominee. He said he wants find out what Trump "thinks about Utah values and principles."

After that, Herbert said he'll be ready to make some determination "as far as who can put the country back on the right track." He said neither Clinton nor Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is still vying for the Democratic nomination, fit that bill.

"I certainly don't see myself voting for Sen. Clinton or Bernie Sanders, an avowed socialist," the governor said. He said he's looking for "somebody who can bring us together. The disfunctionality that we see in Washington, D.C., is palpable."

One of the few Utah elected officials who've already endorsed Trump, House Speaker Greg Hughes, said he's been asked again and again by fellow Republicans about his decision.

"While I knew he was certainly not the most acceptable candidate, I did not know I could endorse the devil and have it be better received," said Hughes, R-Draper. But the speaker said he believes that attitude toward Trump will change — over time.

"I think people do come around. I think primary battles can be harsh and hard," Hughes said. "As you see other Republicans, even national figures and national leaders coalesce around Donald Trump, that will help bring the comfort level up."

The speaker said he and other Utah Republicans on the ballot this November will have to see how Trump's candidacy impacts their races.

"I'm optimistic. I don't worry about Donald Trump at the top of the ticket hurting the state. This is a Republican state," Hughes said, predicting even Romney could come around on Trump.

Romney has not commented on Trump's new position in the race, tweeting his thanks to Cruz after the Texas senator announced he was suspending his campaign "for making a fight for conservatism, American leadership and freedom."

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Chaffetz, who spent a lot of time on the campaign trail for Romney in 2012, said Trump is going to have to connect with Republicans who have been critical of his candidacy.

"The opportunity for Donald Trump is now to bring everybody into the tent. He's going to have to do a lot of outreach," the congressman said. "Now he's got to rally people. That's a monumental task."

Don Peay, head of Utahns for Trump, said Romney "was glowingly happy" to receive Trump's endorsement in 2012. "I think Gov. Romney really needs to take a look in the mirror and consider: Is this about Mitt and Trump or is this about America?"

Peay, a Romney supporter himself in 2012, cited recent statements by former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. calling for the Republican establishment to stop the infighting and get behind Trump.

Utah Republican National Committeeman Bruce Hough said he doesn't believe the state's GOP will be negatively affected by the support for Cruz, or the condemnation by some of Trump.

"I don't know that it matters that much in the scheme of things," he said. "We're in a position that we've got a good delegation in Washington, and we're going to fight the good fight. … We don't want to be defined by who sits in the White House."

Hough said he'll vote for Trump as the party's nominee.

"We can criticize and we can be concerned about his rhetoric, his temperament, his tone, all of the things I don't like," the longtime state Republican Party official said. "The reality is, the majority like it."

Kirk Jowers, a longtime Romney supporter and the former head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, said he doesn't know "how you deny a guy who already has more than 2 million more votes than Romney got on his run."

Jowers said it will take time for Utah Republicans to unite behind Trump, but he believes they will "to support, if not Trump himself, the notion of trying to save the Supreme Court," where the next president will likely name four justices.

Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, didn't refer directly to Trump in a statement but agreed it's time for the party to put its differences over a nominee aside. Stewart was an early supporter of Rubio and campaigned for him around the country.

"While Mr. Trump wasn't my first choice, we must move forward and unite to defeat Hillary Clinton," Stewart said, noting that "our future president will shift the court — and our country's policies — for generations."

Contributing: Ladd Egan

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Lisa Riley Roche

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