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PARK CITY — Former Vice President Joe Biden, the frontrunner in the still-crowded Democratic presidential race, is expected to spend less than four hours in Utah on Saturday, not enough time to hold a public event in addition to a scheduled fundraiser in Park City, one of the event’s hosts said.
But Scott Howell also said he’s been assured by the campaign that Biden will come back to Utah “in the not-too-distant future” to meet with voters.
“It’s not the ‘ATM effect’ because I’ve called them out on that. I said, ‘We’ve got to have something more here,’” he said, than just treating the state as a place to come for campaign contributions. “Joe knows that. ... He knows it’s important. The average Utahn wants to see the candidate up front and real.”
Biden campaign spokesman Vedant Patel said the former vice president will be back.
“Vice President Biden is running for president to restore the soul of our nation and he’s taken that message all across the country. Our campaign looks forward to visiting Utah again in the coming months and engaging Utahns on issues impacting working families the most,” Patel said in a statement.
Howell, a former state Senate minority leader who has counted Biden as a friend since 1998, when the then-U.S. senator from Delaware came to Utah to raise money for the state’s Democratic lawmakers, said Biden is squeezing in the Park City event between stops in New Mexico and Colorado.
The lowest-priced ticket to the Park City fundraiser was reduced from $500 to $250, Howell said, to make the event more inclusive. It’s being held at the home of Mark Gilbert, who has hosted past Democratic presidential fundraisers, including one for President Barack Obama back when he was running for his first term in 2007.
Obama, then a U.S. senator from Illinois, had planned only to attend the private Park City fundraiser between campaign events in Atlanta and Elko, Nev., but his staff hastily organized a rally outside the Park City Visitors Center at Kimball Junction that attracted hundreds of Utahns.
Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jeff Merchant said such visits are key, particularly in a state dominated by Republicans.
“Of course it’s important. One of the biggest complaints that I hear from Democrats is that they feel disenfranchised. They feel their voice is not heard,” Merchant said, both with Utah and nationally. “Since Utah is oftentimes just written off, we don’t get candidates coming.”
He said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, whose Utah visit in April included a news conference in Big Cottonwood Canyon and a rally at The Depot in downtown Salt Lake City, experienced “a groundswell of support among Utahns because of the time she spent here.”
Other Democratic presidential candidates who have come to Utah include Julian Castro, the U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary under Obama. Castro spoke in February to a group of Hispanic students gathered for a leadership conference at the University of Utah.
Merchant said Utah has a bigger role to play in this election, given the size of the Democratic field vying to take on President Donald Trump, who’s expected to be the Republican name on the November 2020 ballot despite several challengers from within his party.
“The delegates we have may actually make a difference when push comes to shove,” he said, when Democrats convene in July 2020 in Milwaukee to nominate their pick for president. “We may not be a big state, but we may have a big impact.”
Earlier this year, Utah lawmakers moved the state’s presidential primary election to March 3, 2020 — the so-called Super Tuesday date when the largest number of states and territories are also casting ballots. Merchant said he anticipates that will bring more Democratic candidates to Utah.
We may not be a big state, but we may have a big impact.
So far, he said, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg; New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and California Sen. Kamala Harris have all have expressed at least some interest in making campaign stops in Utah. In July, an event featuring Harris promoted at a Salt Lake venue turned out to be a hoax.
“I think by the time we get to that vote in early March we’re going to see most of the top-tier candidates,” he said, as well as others remaining in the race. So far, seven Democratic candidates have already dropped out of the running and “between now and March is pretty much an eternity in politics.”
Merchant said he hopes to see Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Utah. Sanders attracted thousands of supporters to his Salt Lake rallies in 2016 and was the overwhelming winner of the state’s presidential preference caucus vote that year over the party’s eventual nominee. former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
But the Utah Democratic Party leader said while candidates are always welcome to hold fundraisers in the state, they should make sure they meet with voters, too.
“I’m not necessarily interested in their fundraisers. I’m interested in them coming to talk to voters. ... We’re always going to be better off hearing from campaigns directly,” Merchant said. “Nobody likes being thought of as an ATM and I don’t think people in Utah like that either.”
Biden was in the state last December, before he announced he was seeking the White House, for an appearance at the University of Utah. He spoke for more than an hour and a half on a wide range of often personal topics, but not his political plans, and waived his usual speaking fee, listed at $100,000 to $200,000.