Republican candidate Donald Trump started off a Friday campaign rally in Salt Lake City, with a nod to the faith of many Utahans and a jab at Mitt Romney.
"Do I love the Mormons?" Mr. Trump asked, the Deseret News reported. "I have lots of friends and by the way, Mitt Romney is not one of them. Are you sure he's a Mormon?"
Utah usually comes too late in the primary cycle to attract much national attention, but Mr. Trump's charged personality and success in the primaries, coupled with persistent rumors that the Republican Party leaders will force a brokered or open convention, are making every state's vote count.
Utah's unique political character may offer special insights into the 2016 Republican race, however. Utah has not voted for a Democratic president since 1964, and in 2012 the state gave Mr. Romney "the largest margin of victory in any of the 50 states since Ronald Reagan" according to 270towin.com, a site that has mapped voting records since 2004.
Romney is trying to use his popularity in the state to turn the tide against Trump. Although he campaigned for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, he said in a statement Friday he will vote for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz because "the only path that remains to nominate a Republican rather than Mr. Trump" is to give another candidate enough votes to force an open convention.
Called "the most Republican state in the country" by CBS News, Utah's Tuesday caucus could indicate the path forward for the Republican Party. Although polls suggest Mr. Cruz will win Utah's Republican vote, the race highlights the division within the Republican Party, says Robert Oscanyan, an economics analyst in Utah who serves as his precinct's Republican delegate.
"I think that’s what the Republican party is grappling with, is this idea of, 'We should probably get back to our platform,' or this idea of 'We should do whatever it takes,'" Mr. Oscanyan says.
Most Utahans view their vote as an effort to "somehow redeem what's been going on," Oscanyan says. While Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has appealed to Democrats who fear the "1 percent," he says, Trump and Cruz attract voters who have been taught for eight years to fear a terrorist threat above all else.
Utah is where Romney's anti-Trump message should have the most currency, but his strong stance has probably strengthened Trump among fringe voters.
"We’re all really wishing he had just kept his mouth shut because he is just kind of growing the division, and he’s showing how deeply divided the Republican Party is," says Peter Gregory, a graduate student in Utah and activist who supports Mr. Kasich's candidacy. "Everybody’s just upset that they’ve been listening to the party leaders that say, 'Give us the House, give us the Senate, and we’ll make a change,' and they’ve had eight years to do it."
Romney's popularity does not override his lack of an alternative narrative to these frustrations, Mr. Gregory says, although religion may still play a role among Utah voters. Although the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints takes no political positions on candidates, Gregory says he has seen the church's positions on relevant issues, such as immigration or refugees, used in arguments against Trump's speeches.
But Oscanyan cautions against believing Trump will receive only voters who do not identify as Mormons. He suggests that most of Utah's Trump supporters are "Baby Boomers and older" who take a "desperate times call for desperate measures" approach.
Romney's faith helped him in the 2012 election, when many Mormons who might otherwise not support either party thought, "He's one of us," Oscanyan says. But in a race with no Mormon candidates, such voters might easily dismiss Mitt Romney as a member of the hated "establishment."
One Latter-day Saint who attended Trump's campaign rally on Friday night told CBS News that Trump's question about Romney's faith was "an off-the-cuff joke."
"Everyone knows Romney's a great Mormon – of course he is," Dennis Anderson of Farmington, Utah, told CBS News. "When he said that, I didn't even cringe. Sometimes when he says stuff, I do. But not on that."
Romney is working to prevent Trump from winning the Utah caucus, as polls give Cruz a slight lead. Cruz, along with Trump and Kasich are campaigning throughout the weekend. Romney's experience in otherwise-loyal Utah, however, may show the Republican Party cannot decry Trump without providing an entirely different narrative.
"This year is very much the year of the outsider," Gregory says. "It’s cool to fight against the establishment or the system because the system honestly hasn’t really helped people that much recently."