Mia Love, running for Utah's 4th Congressional District, at the Utah State Capitol on March 6. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune)

Other than her conservatism, there is little about Mia Love that doesn’t stand out in Utah. She is a black Republican, a 36-year-old mother of three, a fitness instructor and mayor of a growing town.

Now, her congressional race against a popular incumbent whom Republicans have struggled to defeat has made Love a minor celebrity among GOP stalwarts.

She recently introduced herself to a group of teachers, standing in the gilded state Capitol, which historically has been the domain of white men, by describing her Haitian American father.

“He said: ‘Mia, your mother and I never took a handout. You will not be a burden to society,’ ” she said with a stern smile. “ ‘You will give back.’ ”

Most of the teachers already knew of Love, whose race against six-term Rep. Jim Matheson (D) has become one of the country’s most closely watched congressional contests.

If she wins, not only would she help Republicans keep control of the House, but she would become the first black Republican woman to serve in Congress. Love, who is Mormon, also could go a long way toward helping presidential candidate Mitt Romney, putting a fresh face on his church and his party as both try to appeal to an increasingly diverse nation.

As a result, independent groups and both political parties are expected to pour millions of dollars into the contest. The race, in a district where Republicans have dominated, is rated a toss-up by the Cook Political Report.

Republicans are effusive about their candidate.

“Mia has a great opportunity to extend the message of liberty and economic freedom in ways that a lot of us can’t, and we’re excited about that,” said House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (Wis.) after hosting a fundraiser for her in Park City on Friday night.

It was only two months ago that Love caught statewide attention at Utah’s Republican convention, where she blew her opponents out of the race by winning support from 70 percent of the delegates. Under the state’s primary rules, candidates with at least 60 percent go into the primary election unopposed.

Without an opponent in the primary Tuesday, Love has been able to spend her time raising money, preparing for the match-up against Matheson and raising her profile. She has not shied away from the provocative, saying that “government is not your salvation” and pledging to join the Congressional Black Caucus to take it apart “from the inside out.”

“Mia Love is the type of candidate that Republicans have been trying to recruit,” said Jessica Taylor, a senior analyst at the Rothenberg Political Report. “On paper, this is a district that they should have won awhile ago.”

Love is running in a congressional district created in 2010 amid negotiations to give Washington, D.C., a vote in the House. Utah’s new congressional map carved up Matheson’s old district, tossing in even more Republicans. So he hopped to the newly drawn 4th district, which contains about a third of his old territory.

‘It is unprecedented’

The primary victory for Love, a relative newcomer, stunned Utah. She is a tall black woman with braided hair in a state that has elected only three women to Congress and has an African American population of less than 1 percent, according to the most recent census.

“It is unprecedented. It is astonishing,” said Tim Chambless, an associate professor of political science at University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics.

Love has placed no special significance on the history she could make in Congress, but she knows the stakes are high. Matheson, who also had an uncontested primary, has outpaced her in fundraising by nearly 10 to 1.

And she recognizes that some might question her ties to her adopted state: How does a woman born in Brooklyn and reared in Connecticut end up in Utah?

While in college she met her future husband, Jason Love, who was in Connecticut on a Mormon mission. Fourteen years ago, she moved to Utah; left the Catholic Church, in which she was raised; and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Love, whose husband is white, said she has felt nothing but acceptance in Utah.

She has said that when she heard talk about taking the words “under God” out of the Pledge of Allegiance, she decided to run for city council in Saratoga Springs, a town of about 18,000, and was elected mayor in 2009.

Love has vowed to take the balanced-budget approach she has used in Saratoga Springs and apply it Washington. To cut federal costs, she has advocated eliminating agencies that she considers bloated or ineffective, including the Departments of Energy and Education.

Matheson calls her views “extremist.”

“She wants to get rid of Medicare,” he said. “She wants to get rid of student loans. I think these are positions that are pretty far out there.”

Love counters that Matheson “is out of touch with the people of Utah. I’m going to do everything I can to get decision-making back to the people.”

She favors giving states control of Medicare through block grants, privatizing more of the student loan market, and revamping Social Security to increase the retirement age and reindex the program for younger Americans, said spokesman Brian Somers.

LaVarr Webb, a Republican lobbyist and communications consultant in Utah, said that as Love lays out her ideas, she will need to “portray herself as mainstream Republican rather than arch-conservative, far-right Republican.”

In a slick Web video, her campaign is playing up that she is a working mother, a move that could blunt talk that she is too far to the right and that could appeal to independents and women, who have supported Matheson.

After meeting with Love, Elaine Grant, a high school teacher who lives in West Jordan, said she was refreshed by the candidate’s talk of “dismantling entitlements.” Grant is a Republican who has voted for Matheson in the past, but this year she has decided to abandon him for Love.

“There’s this perception that there aren’t any African Americans in Utah and a misperception that there are no African American Mormons,” Grant said. “She dispels some of that. That’s a good thing.”

‘I’ve been to this rodeo’

Matheson recognizes the challenge. A sixth-generation Utahn, he has built a reputation as a hard worker, willing to negotiate across the aisle and buck his party.

“Every year I have a tough race. I’ve been to this rodeo before,” he said in a recent interview. While his district voted Republican in presidential contests, Matheson won 63 percent of the vote in 2008 and 55 percent in 2004.

If Romney, whose son Josh has endorsed Love, brings out more Republican voters, that could work against Matheson. But Utah voters pride themselves on their independence, hearkening back to the state’s founding by hearty pioneers, and they have a history of voting across the ticket.

“My message has always been that I put Utah first,” said Matheson, who often reminds voters that he opposed President Obama’s health-care plan and supported the Republican-backed balanced-budget amendment. “To the extent that people are frustrated with the politics of today, the polarization, the bickering, I am the antidote.”

Love is betting that Utah voters are looking for a more partisan solution. She likes asking fellow Republicans this question about Matheson: “How is it that we’ve allowed him to represent us for so long?”

Staff writer T.W. Farnam contributed to this report.