Romney and Huntsman's Mormon Melee

Frontrunner Romney is looking to cut off Hunstman's support in homestate Utah

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Jon Huntsman opened his campaign with a shot at his fellow Mormon Mitt Romney--and so far, Romney hasn't returned fire, at least not rhetorically. But the Romney campaign is trying to tinker with the Utah Republican primary to hurt Huntsman's chances, The Salt Lake Tribune's Robert Gehrke reports. Utah's Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who serves as elections supervisor, told Gehrke, "I talked to the Romney people and said, 'Is this important for you?' And they said, 'A win is a win and delegate votes may really count.'" Bell added that he'd "love to see" his state "have a real impact on the election." What would that impact be? Squashing Jon Huntsman.

The attention to the primary in Utah (where Huntsman was governor from 2005 to 2009) shows how seriously frontrunner Romney is taking Huntsman (even if he is barely registering in the polls). Romney would trounce Huntsman in the Utah primary--even though the latter was reelected governor with 78 percent of the vote in 2008--if the primary vote were held today. A recent Deseret News/KSL-TV poll puts Romney at 50 percent of the vote to Huntsman's 22 percent. As Hotline editor Reid Wilson explained to the Tribune, "Losing his home state wouldn’t be devastating to Huntsman, but it would prove a major embarrassment and at a time when every single news story is crucial, it would raise questions about why he lost the one state he should definitely win."

Right now, the primary is scheduled for June 26 of next year; the earliest the Republican National Committee would allow it to be held is the second week of March. Not only would an early Huntsman defeat would be great for Romney, it looks like the earlier the primary is held in Utah, the bigger that defeat would be. Romney's lead is huge but slipping: In April, he was trouncing Huntsman 69 percent to 14 percent. And in February, his lead was 72 percent to 15 percent among Republicans.

Huntsman has waved off rumors of a family feud with Romney. But the fight between their campaigns is real--in April, Huntsman poached a key Romney backer from 2008. The two are battling for Utah's dollars as well, The New York Times' Kirk Johnson explains. Deseret News' Jamshid Ghazi Askar reports that Utahans donated $877,000 told political campaigns in 2000, and $1.1 million in 2004. But in 2008, with Romney in the race, they forked over 10 times more--$9.9 million. Romney got more than half of that money. This year, the Mormon Church has told its highest leaders that they can't endorse or campaign for candidates, the Tribune's Lee Davidson reports. But part-time leaders and laymen still can (meaning Huntsman's dad can contribute to his son).

Huntsman wants a slice of that Mormon cash, but the logistics can be delicate. The former ambassador was going to visit Utah last Friday, but his campaign postponed the trip--because of scheduling, aides said, but Romney happened to be in the state on the same day. Instead, Huntsman's Utah fundraiser was rescheduled for Tuesday.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.