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PARK CITY — Sen. Mitt Romney said Friday he may never be ready to endorse President Donald Trump's re-election, but wouldn't give the race's Democratic front-runner, Joe Biden, "more than a 50-50 shot" of winning the White House.
"I don't think endorsements are worth a thimble of spit," the Utah Republican told reporters during a break at the annual E2 Summit on policy and politics in Deer Valley that attracts big-money GOP donors.
"I think the attitude here has got to be the same as across the country, which is the president will surely be the Republican nominee and an incumbent in a growing economy is more likely to win than to lose. But it's not a sure thing," he said.
Romney said if the Democrats nominate "a strong contender, anything's possible." But he declined to say whether he believes Biden, a former vice president who appeared at the summit in 2017, would be Trump's toughest opponent.
However, he said Biden would put up a better challenge than Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, but predicted Democrats will nominate a president candidate outside their party's mainstream.
Romney made news recently by saying it was too early to endorse the sitting president of his own party, a statement he repeated Friday. In 2016, after slamming Trump during the GOP primaries, Romney wrote in his wife, Ann, for president.
The 250 business leaders and others gathered at Stein Eriksen Lodge for the three-day conference that ends midday Saturday include both Trump supporters and critics, Romney said.
A panel Saturday will feature an outspoken critic of the president, Republican strategist Ana Navarro, and a former member of the Trump administration for a brief period, Anthony Scaramucci.
Romney's run for Senate last year was endorsed by the president via Twitter, but he said he doesn't "think anybody votes for somebody based on who endorsed them. ... I've stayed out of the endorsement business to the extent possible."
He suggested he may not make an endorsement in the upcoming presidential election.
"I don't know what I'll do with regards to 2020, but I wouldn't be surprised if I stay out of the endorsements," Romney said. "Last time I voted for Ann and I still think she's doing a fine job."
Romney said much of the summit he started in 2012 as a thank you to contributors to his presidential bid focused on policy. He spoke Friday about the challenge from China alongside former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
There, Romney praised the president for confronting China on unfair trade practices after decades of allowing what he said was cheating by a nation seeking to supplant the West as the world's economic leader.
"I think President Trump was right to say, 'This is nuts, we’ve got to stop this.' So he’s been aggressive," he said, adding that the president's "I win, you lose" negotiating strategy is very different from his own.
Romney said he would have "linked arms" with American allies around the world and presented a united front against China to urge changes, including on human rights. Such an effort should be done quietly, he said, to help China save face.
Rudd noted the world is watching the United States and was greeted with laughter when he described Trump as unique.
"He's right out there. He's kind of Teddy Roosevelt on speed," the former left-of-center prime minister said.
He, too, gave the president credit for having "shaken the cage" of China and said that despite the president's "bull-in-the-china-shop approach, Trump really has seized China's attention."
Romney later told reporters he is not a fan of tariffs, but said that was the only tool available to Trump to deal with China.
The tariffs the president threatened to impose on Mexico next week are a different story, Romney said. Trump announced later Friday that the proposed tariffs were "indefinitely suspended" because of a deal made with Mexico.
Romney said punishing a country that is a friend and neighbor was "a very bad idea" that would have meant higher costs for American consumers, but said there might not have been sufficient votes to stop the tariffs in the GOP-controlled Senate.
Also at the summit Friday, a Harvard economist said Utah has "very high rates" of upward mobility during the only other presentation open to the news media.
Economist Raj Chetty cited efforts to help low-income Utahns rise out of poverty offered by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a key factor in Utah's showing in an analysis of where children are doing better than their parents.
Family stability, measured as two-parent households, is the strongest predictor of success, he said, along with lower poverty rates and better schools in addition to "social capital" from churches and other organizations.
Salt Lake City, Chetty said, is an example of a place with "a lot of social capital." He said he met Thursday with church leaders and found "there's a lot of support for people in lower-income backgrounds who have hit hard times to rise up again."
That's being done in a way that "provides pathways out of poverty rather than just creating dependence on the system," Chetty said. "Places that exhibit that type of close-knit connection in the community tend to have high levels of upward mobility."
He began his half-hour presentation by warning there is a "dramatic fading of the American dream," with children today having only a 50-50 shot at earning more than their parents.
Mapping of the incomes of children whose parents made $25,000 showed that in Salt Lake City, the average income at age 35 is $37,500, the same as the San Francisco area and at the higher end of the scale.
Chetty also noted there's no link between job growth and upward mobility, according to the research. He said Charlotte, North Carolina, has a high job rate growth but an average income of $26,300 for those same children, because the city imports talent.
Upward mobility is localized, not areawide, Chetty pointed out with a map of the Salt Lake City area displaying a wide variation of incomes that were higher along the east bench.
What policymakers can do to make a difference is getting children of low-income families into more upwardly mobile neighborhoods, he said, describing a pilot program in Seattle that assisted families in finding such housing.
"There are a lot of lost Einsteins," Chetty said after describing how more patents are issued to children from higher-income families, even when the lower-income children score highly on math tests.
He said rather than being pessimistic about the data, the focus should be on the places in America "where kids have great chances of succeeding" and using policy to "figure out how to increase economic opportunity for all."
Other speakers include Gary Cohn, a former economic adviser to President Donald Trump who has lashed out at former White House colleagues about tariffs; and Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase and a Democrat.
Among the participants at the summit is Utah's only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams. Romney said McAdams joined a hike Friday morning and outpaced just about everyone else.
A relaxed Paul Ryan, the retired Wisconsin congressman who served as U.S. House speaker and as Romney's vice presidential running mate, declined to talk to the Deseret News, saying he was "enjoying not giving interviews."
Later, a statement released about the summit identified Ryan as the chairman of the summit, replacing Romney, who is participating "in an honorary capacity" now that he's a U.S. senator.
Boston-based Solamere Capital, founded by Romney's son, Tagg, and Spencer Zwick, who helped Romney raise $1 billion for his 2012 presidential race, is the sponsor of the summit, named E2 for experts and enthusiasts.
Zwick said while past summits have brought in plenty of presidential contenders, this year's is looking beyond the 2020 election by bringing in a slate of GOP "rising stars" to mingle with Republican donors.
Those include, he said, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who briefly considered challenging Trump for the 2020 GOP presidential nomination; North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum; Texas Rep. Will Hurd and North Carolina Rep. Patrick McHenry.
"We have a Republican president but people in this room are looking for that next generation," Zwick said. "People are wondering, what is the future of conservatism? What is the future of the party?"