The first showdown between the two Mormons running for president will take place this week in Utah, where Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman Jr. will hold competing fundraisers only a couple of hours and a few blocks apart.
Huntsman will launch his campaign Tuesday near the Statue of Liberty. He and Romney are trying to tap into the wealth of the Mormon community, one of the Republican Party’s ripest donor pools and one that both are laying special claim to.
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.”
Nevertheless, Romney spent Monday at private fundraisers in two small Idaho cities with sizable Mormon populations. And he will return to Utah on Friday, holding a luncheon at a supporter’s house in Orem and an evening reception at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City. Entry to both events costs $1,000, while tickets to the VIP photo receptions require the legal maximum donation of $2,500, according to an invitation obtained by The Washington Post.
In Utah, Romney is trying to lure back his old donors. But he is also competing against Huntsman to sign up bundlers — supporters who help bring in donations from their friends and colleagues.
Several knowledgeable Utah Republicans said Romney has won over many of the community’s biggest donors. But at least half a dozen prominent business leaders who gave to Romney in 2008, including Zions Bank Chairman A. Scott Anderson, will hold a breakfast fundraiser on Friday for Huntsman. Each is giving his campaign $2,500, according to an invitation obtained by The Post.
University of Notre Dame political scientist David Campbell, who is Mormon, said many in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consider a donation to Romney or Huntsman a sort of down payment on the prospect that they could help bring the faith into the cultural mainstream.
“I think that 2012 will be remembered as a pretty important year for Mormons,” Campbell said, adding that Romney or Huntsman could “become the JFK of Mormons and put the religion question to rest.”
But the pursuit of Mormon support could also work against the candidates. In 2008, Romney’s religion was widely thought to have hurt him in some states, including in Iowa, where evangelicals dominate the first-in-the-nation caucuses.
Now, the Mormon money sought by the Romney and Huntsman campaigns serves as a fresh, and potentially costly, reminder of their religion.
A new Gallup poll showed that 22 percent of Americans would not vote for their party’s nominee if that person were Mormon, a figure largely unchanged from 1967, when Romney’s father, George, was seeking the White House.
Four years ago, the Romneys and the Huntsmans were mostly playing for the same team. Huntsman’s father, Jon Huntsman Sr. — whose chemical and containers company made him one of Utah’s richest residents — served as one of Romney’s national finance chairmen, helping mobilize his own network in support of Romney.
The support went both ways. When Jon Huntsman Jr. first ran for governor in 2004, Romney’s wife, Ann, gave his campaign $10,000, according to campaign finance records. Of the 1,000 or so donors listed on Huntsman’s campaign reports, at least 180 had also given to Romney’s campaigns.
Huntsman, however, endorsed John McCain (R-Ariz.) before the 2008 primaries, reportedly angering Romney.
Now, Jon Huntsman Sr. is working exclusively on his son’s behalf. One Utah GOP operative said the father has been “putting a squeeze” on his business associates to give to his son’s campaign.
Privately, several Republicans said many devout Mormons are displeased with comments Huntsman recently made distancing himself from the Mormon Church, as well as with his support of civil unions for same-sex couples and his loosening of Utah’s liquor laws at the end of his gubernatorial term.
It wouldn’t be the first time a Huntsman has been on the outs with some in the state. In the 1970s, Jon Huntsman Sr. and his brother, Blaine, were denied membership in the Alta Club, a members-only gathering place for Salt Lake City’s elite. Jon is said to have held a grudge and never applied again. The club reportedly made overtures by inviting his sons to join, but they declined.
Yet when Jon Huntsman Jr. returns to Utah this week, it will be at the Alta Club, where he will stage his big breakfast, welcoming plaudits — and checks — from the state’s establishment.
Staff writer T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.