Romney and Huntsman are trying to parlay their status in Utah — the former as the turnaround artist who saved the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, the latter as a recent governor and both as scions of wealthy and influential Mormon families — to give themselves an advantage in the 2012 race.
“That community is going to be split, there’s no doubt about it,” said John Weaver, Huntsman’s chief strategist. “That’s natural, because they know both families and they know both men.”
Weaver, perhaps trying to lower expectations for his candidate, said Romney’s 2008 race gives him a head start with Mormon donors. “There will be people who support both, and there will be people who will support Romney,” he said. “And we have some major bundlers and donors who have seen both who are going with us. But it’s not so much about taking people away.”
In fact, Huntsman and his supporters have been calling Romney donors and asking them to consider giving to Huntsman, too, according to several Utah Republicans.
“People who know both of them have a high regard for both of them,” said Joel C. Peterson, a Utah-based venture capitalist and JetBlue Airways chairman.
Peterson, a close friend of Romney’s since the two grew up together in Michigan, has long supported Romney. But he said that Huntsman has been reaching out to some of his friends for support. “At some point, they’ll have to choose,” Peterson said.
Romney took advantage of the largely untapped wealth in the Mormon community in his 2008 presidential race, raising $5.5 million in Utah — more than he raised in Massachusetts, where he lives and served as governor. It’s unclear how much of that came from Mormons and how deep the donor base in the community will be this year, but Utah Republicans are confident it will be sizable.
“There’s never been a history in this state of people giving money to those who run for president,” said Stan Lockhart, a former chairman of the Utah Republican Party. But, he said, “Mitt Romney changed the game when he raised all the money he did in 2008.”
Lockhart said he expects a similar result this year. “If you look at what Mitt raises and Jon raises in Utah,” he said, “it’ll be a substantial amount of money.”
In his second presidential campaign, Romney has a more national fundraising strategy — he raised more than $10 million in a single day during a Las Vegas phone-a-thon last month — and is widely expected to outpace his rivals when the campaigns post their totals in July. Mormon outreach this time is, as one Romney intimate put it, “a smaller piece of a larger effort.”