Utah’s Lt. Gov. Friends with Both Romney and Huntsman; In A Pickle

Jun 28, 2011 2:33pm

ABC News’ Emily Friedman (@EmilyABC) reports:

Utah Lieutenant Governor Greg Bell says he never dreamed of knowing someone who was running for president and certainly didn’t expect to be wedged between two of his best friends as they vie for the White House.

Bell, who has been longtime friends both personally and professionally with Gov. Jon Huntsman and Gov. Mitt Romney, told ABC News today that he’s found himself in a “difficult situation” as his state grapples with the decision of whether to move up the 2012 presidential primary from June to early March.

Bell said he was first approached by members of Romney’s team in March of this year about moving the date earlier in 2012 before Huntsman was “even a gleam in the eye of any presidential promoter.”

 “At the time it was about making Utah a big player on the scene,” said Bell, who believes that an earlier presidential primary will boost Utah voters’ impact on the nomination process, unlike a late June vote that typically has “abysmal” turnout.

But now with Huntsman in the race, things have gotten complicated, admits Bell.

Outspoken about his support for Romney’s presidential campaign, Bell knows that by backing an earlier primary date he might appear to be siding with one of his friends – not to mention one of the presidential candidates – over the other.

“It’s a very difficult position to be in, because I have two friends who are running for president and they want support,” Bell told ABC News.

An earlier primary date would effectively boost attention paid to the matchup between Romney and Huntsman in a state that typically hosts its presidential primaries so late in the game that the decision has more or less been made for them, explained Bell. 

“For Utah to have a favorite son in the game is pretty amazing,” he said. “To have two people who are very credible candidates and one being the apparent frontrunner right now is unprecedented.”

And it’s likely to be a tough decision for many Utah voters. Romney garnered nearly 90 percent of votes in the 2008 presidential primary in Utah and Huntsman received 78 percent of the vote in his gubernatorial election that same year. 

Bell says that despite his backing of Romney his support of an earlier vote really hinges on what is best for the state of Utah.

“I’m not going to move around a very important event just to possibly help one candidate,” said Bell, explaining that he, like any other politician, has his own personal views but must also remain objective on behalf of his constituents.

But the cost of holding the presidential primary in early March – rather than piggybacking on the already scheduled statewide election for other offices on June 26, 2012 – will cost an estimated $2.6 million, a price tag not overlooked by Bell.

Bell maintains while some of the cost of holding an earlier presidential primary would be offset by the revenue garnered from visiting campaigns, voters and media.

“Candidly, there is a cost – but what is it worth to the people of Utah to have a voice in selecting their president?” asked Bell.

Asked whether he’d still be pushing the earlier vote if Huntsman were the current GOP frontrunner and not Romney, Bell said “yes.”

“If you held a primary today it would clearly advantage Romney, but who knows what the situation will be in February [2012],” said Bell. “And if I were Gov. Huntsman I’d think really strongly about the advantage of going to my home base and saying, ‘Hi guys, remember me? Look at what I’ve done…I need your support.’”

Bell said that he has not spoken to Huntsman about the primary date but imagines they will have a conversation about it soon.

“I’m sure we’ll talk and I’ll explain to Jon that you’ve been away, and I have this affiliation with Romney that is long standing and our sons are very close and there are personal connections,” said Bell. “I’m so impressed with Romney and I made that decision without understanding that Jon would come back.”

So far it doesn’t appear that the old friends are harboring any ill will against Bell.

The Huntsman campaign told ABC News that they “welcome the primary whenever Utahns decide to hold it” and the Romney campaign said that they too “look forward to the primary and will be competitive there whenever it is held.”

Both Huntsman and Romney have spent time in Utah holding events and fundraising since announcing their respective candidacies. Today Huntsman is in the state  holding a fundraising luncheon in Salt Lake City. 

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