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SALT LAKE CITY — Tanner Ainge, one of three Republicans in next month's 3rd Congressional District primary election, differentiated himself Tuesday from the frontrunner in the race, Provo Mayor John Curtis.
"First of all, I'm a lifelong Republican and I follow conservative principles," Ainge told members of the Deseret News and KSL editorial boards when asked about the differences between himself and Curtis.
A recent UtahPolicy.com poll gave Curtis a double-digit lead over both Ainge, an Alpine lawyer, and former state lawmaker Chris Herrod. The same poll found that nearly half of Republican voters in the 3rd District are undecided.
Ainge pointed out that Curtis, who ran for the state Senate in 2000 as a Democrat, once served as head of the Utah County Democratic Party. The first-time candidate said Curtis is politically moderate even after changing parties.
"People who know John Curtis know that that's what he is. He is moderate. Maybe for some people, their principles never change and they can keep one foot in the Republican Party and one foot in the Democrat Party," Ainge said.
He said Curtis is "not telling the real story on the campaign trail," calling himself a conservative who cut spending as mayor "when in fact, he increased it. And so there is a disconnect."
Danny Laub, Curtis' campaign spokesman, responded that Curtis "is a conservative running a positive, issue-based Utah campaign even if his opponents are intent on running Washington, D.C.,-style campaigns based on negative attacks."
Curtis has said the mayor of Provo doesn't have the ability to raise taxes but he has supported some increases such as the Recreation, Arts and Parks tax, a one-cent increase in sales taxes on every $10 spent.
As for his time as a Democrat, Curtis has said, "I changed my party but I never changed my principles." He said he was involved with the Democrats to offer voters in the GOP-dominated county a choice.
Ainge also said Tuesday that he voted for President Donald Trump and continues to support him.
"I do. When he succeeds, I think we'll all succeed. And there's a lot of his agenda that I'd love to see get through," Ainge said, citing tax reform and easing regulatory burdens on business.
Curtis has said he didn't back Trump or vote for "any of the candidates that were on the ballot" in last year's presidential race but that there were issues on Trump's agenda he could support.
Like Ainge, those included tax reform and fewer government regulations, as well as the ability for a Republican to fill the then-vacant seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Curtis said, too, that Trump's "disruptor" style appealed to him.
Ainge, who raised money for Republican Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign, said he was "listening very carefully" to concerns Romney raised about Trump during the presidential primary election.
"I did have concerns about the tone of the campaign," Ainge said. "But for me, ultimately, when it was a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I voted Republican as I always have and voted for the president."
He said he hopes the investigation underway by a special counsel into allegations of collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia "could continue to play out in a nonpolitical way and it would allow everyone else to just do their job."
Ainge said "there's certainly no lifetime loyalty" to Trump, but his focus would be on accomplishing his agenda in Congress.
"I think to a certain extent, you do have to tune it out," he said of the ongoing controversies surrounding the president. "Because unless there's something you can do about it, what's the point of going on TV and talking about it."