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SALT LAKE CITY — Second lady Karen Pence made a brief visit to Salt Lake City Friday to file paperwork putting President Donald Trump on Utah’s March 3 presidential primary ballot, rallying a group of invited Trump supporters at the Capitol by stressing his support for religious liberty and other conservative issues.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, announced at the event he will serve as a co-chairman of the president’s reelection campaign in Utah. In 2016, Lee was a leader of the fight against Trump’s nomination on the floor of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Lee joked to the more than two dozen Trump backers seated in gilded chairs around long tables covered with white cloths set up in the Capitol’s presentation room that he took the “scenic route” to joining them, saying the president “has done exactly what he said he would do and my hat goes off to him for that.”
The senator praised Trump for his work on issues that matter to the country and to Utah, including the bipartisan criminal justice reform act he co-sponsored that was signed into law by the president last year, and the decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
“While I don’t always agree with him on every issue, I’ve been pleased with many things that he has done so I’m going to support him,” Lee told reporters later, saying because of the administration’s results, he expects Trump to do better among Utah voters than in 2016, when he won just 45.5% of the general election vote.
In Utah’s 2016 Republican presidential caucus vote, Trump finished a distant third behind Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and then-Ohio Gov. John Kasich. Next year, Utah, a state that hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, will return to a presidential primary election, set for Super Tuesday on March 3.
“Utahns care immensely about how their president wields his power, what he chooses to do with the government over which he presides,” Lee said. “I think that is going to matter more than any other factor. ...I think he’s going to win and he’s going to win comfortably here in Utah.”
Lee said he is “quite confident” Trump will make a campaign stop in Utah at some point.
Also serving as honorary co-chairmen of the Trump Victory campaign in Utah are former Sen. Orrin Hatch, Reps. Chris Stewart and Rob Bishop, Attorney General Sean Reyes, Utah Senate President Stuart Adams and longtime Trump supporters Don Peay and Ron Fox.
Two Republican members of Utah’s congressional delegation are not on the list of the Trump campaign’s Utah co-chairmen, Sen. Mitt Romney and Rep. John Curtis. Romney, the president’s harshest GOP Senate critic, said Friday he’s not endorsing anyone in the race.
Curtis said in a statement: “This is my first full election cycle so right now I’m spending my time focused on my work representing Utah’s 3rd District. I’m flattered that someone would think my involvement would help the campaign, but to be honest, I don’t think President Trump even needs my help to win Utah.”
Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Ben McAdams, has yet to decide whether he’ll back a Democrat for president, even once the nominee is chosen from the crowded primary field.
“We’re still a long way out,” McAdams’ spokeswoman, Alyson Heyrend, said. “The congressman isn’t giving it much attention right now and remains undecided.”
Pence, the wife of Vice President Mike Pence, said she was proud to be part of an administration that stands for “faith, family and the sanctity of life” and cited numerous instances where Trump has advanced what she called “God-given liberties,” including by stepping in to stop people from being forced to violate their religious beliefs.
“People have a right to their faith. That’s what makes America what we know and love. It’s the land of the free,” Karen Pence said to applause. She also spoke of the conservative judges Trump has appointed to the federal bench, including two to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This president has been a tireless defender of life and conscience in America. This administration is standing up for the rights of all faiths because we know that faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, are the center of American life,” the second lady said in her speech.
“We can’t go back. We must keep moving forward,” Pence said. “This election is about jobs. It’s about security. And it’s about our liberties. We are winning under President Trump’s leadership and to keep winning, we need four more years.”
She warned the 2020 presidential election is “going to be a close race. It’s going to come down to the wire,” and urged them to help the campaign’s efforts in Utah, Pence also asked for their prayers, for the president and his wife, as well as for the country. “Those prayers will uplift this administration and they will uplift this entire nation.”
Pence did not take questions from the news media but took time to pose for pictures with supporters before departing.
One of the Trump supporters invited to attend the event, Utah GOP State Central Committee member KanaMarie Poulson of Bluffdale, said she doesn’t have an issue with how Trump has conducted himself in office and believes most Utah voters will look past his often bombastic language in person and on Twitter.
“What he’s getting done reflects our values. How he does it, everybody is different,” said Poulson, who sported red and blue streaks in her hair and a glittery elephant pin. “I don’t think he’ll have too much trouble.”
Pence’s filing with the state Friday for Trump is the first for a Republican primary candidate. So far, three Democrats have filed to be on the Utah primary ballot, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, California Sen. Kamala Harris and Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, the state elections office said.
The Trump Victory campaign sent out a news release after Pence’s appearance, crediting Trump with giving the average Utah taxpayer a nearly $1,500 tax cut, increasing employment, adding jobs and reducing the number of residents on food stamps.
“The people of Utah spoke loudly when they delivered President Trump a commanding mandate to lead in 2016,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, Romney’s niece, said in a statement, adding the new state leadership team “will pave the way for another strong victory for President Trump in 2020.”
The state charged the Trump campaign $433 to rent the room and the furnishings, standard rates for holding an event not considered official government business or a news conference at the Capitol, according to Alyson Gamble, Capitol Preservation Board executive director.
Contributing: Dennis Romboy