Can Mike Pence fix Trump's problem in Utah?

The Republican vice presidential candidate made his first trip to Utah in his new role on Thursday to speak at a conference in Salt Lake City. 

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, left, greets vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence as he takes the stage during a campaign rally at the Phoenix Convention Center on Wednesday in Phoenix.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s running mate, Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, is due to visit Utah on Thursday, where the campaign may hope his visit – the first since joining the ticket – can stir up enthusiasm for Trump in a state where it is noticeably lagging.

While Mr. Trump’s bombastic style may have endeared him to many voters throughout the rest of the country, his attitude leaves much to be desired for many Utahns, particularly members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Governor Pence, however, may offer a more measured, civil tone that appeals to local Republicans and Mormons more than his running mate's. 

Sen. Mike Lee (R) issued the invitation that brings Pence to Utah: the third annual Utah Solutions Summit, where Pence will speak about higher education. Afterward, the vice presidential candidate will also attend a fundraising lunch for the Trump campaign, where guests are paying $10,000 per ticket, The Salt Lake Tribune reports. 

As of late July, the campaign had raised about $190,000 in Utah, compared to Mrs. Clinton's nearly $700,000, according to the Tribune. 

"I'm a huge fan of Mike Pence. I really like him. I've been a fan of his for many years," Senator Lee, who has not endorsed Trump's candidacy, told the Associated Press. "But his presence here does not involve his status as Donald Trump's running mate. It involves his status as the governor of Indiana and a former congressman."

Many see Pence as a moderating figure for the ticket – including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R), who decided to support the campaign last month, telling reporters that the Indiana governor provided "stability."

But not all Utahns, traditionally a reliably red state, are so convinced. After losing badly in Utah’s March primary, where he received just 14 percent of the votes to Ted Cruz’s 69 percent, Trump needs to present a different image to the Beehive State ahead of the general election. An August poll from Public Policy Polling found that Hillary Clinton trailed Trump by just 24 percent to 39 percent, with Gary Johnson at 12 percent and Evan McMullin at 9 percent. 

"There's not much of a chance that Utah's actually going to go Democratic this year," Dean Debnam, the president of the polling firm, said in a statement. But there is "a pretty decent chance that Donald Trump will end up winning the state with less than 50% of the vote." 

Lee is not the only state politician to publicly hesitate to give Trump the stamp of approval. 

"I've been a Republican delegate, I should be a loyal Republican," Republican state delegate Scott Isaacson told The Christian Science Monitor in August. But "I can’t belong to a party that has [Trump] as the head."

The hemming and hawing are historic for Utah, where Republican candidates have traditionally done well. Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney – who, like more than half of Utahns, is Mormon – won 73 percent of the vote during his 2012 presidential campaign. Arizona Senator John McCain took 62 percent of the vote in 2008 and George W. Bush won 72 percent in 2004.

Although Utahns' usual embrace of Republican candidates goes far beyond reasons of faith, the history of the Mormon church has been a major hurdle to Trump's candidacy there, as The Christian Science Monitor's Lucy Schouten reported earlier this month. 

"Mormons, with their history of having suffered persecution and even having had the governor of a state issue orders for their extermination – I mean, those are my ancestors," said Mr. Isaacson, who, like many Mormons, objects to Trump's calls for greater scrutiny or bans against Mormon immigrants. 

"That whole Muslim ban with Trump – oh, that's hit bad with Utahns," says Calene Van Noy, a lifelong Mormon involved with Utah's caucus-based political scene, told the Monitor. "There's a big huge movement to help the refugees, and we’ve got the missionaries who go all over the world and come back with such a love of the people."

Others are concerned about their own religious freedom under a possible Trump administration, or read hints of historic anti-Mormon sentiment in Trump's comments to an evangelical audience

"You've got to get your people out to vote," he told a group of pastors in Orlando this month, talking about his challenges in Utah and calling it "a different place." 

During Pence's visit this week, Lee told the Associated Press that he plans to discuss Trump’s position on issues such as state vs. federal power. While he won’t be voting for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, he hasn’t ruled out voting for a third party candidate, the Senator said. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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