Conservative bent of Utah favors GOP

ST. GEORGE, Utah -- There aren't many states on a political map redder than Utah.

The state's voters gave George W. Bush 71.5% of the vote in 2004, the highest percent in the nation. Four years earlier, they gave Bush 66.8%. That was the third-highest, behind only Wyoming and Idaho.

Utah voters have not given a majority of their votes to a Democratic candidate since President Lyndon Johnson's landslide victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater in 1964.

That's unlikely to change this year. According to a statewide poll by Dan Jones & Associates, conducted Sept. 8-11, Republican presidential nominee John McCain leads Democratic nominee Barack Obama 62%-24% among registered voters.

Obama supporters in Utah understand their candidate has almost no chance of winning the state's five electoral votes. There are 639,161 registered Republicans in Utah, according to state figures, compared with 136,891 registered Democrats. Even so, Democrats say they do not expect McCain to retain Bush's high marks from four years ago.

"I personally think that Utahans have much more in common with Sen. Obama than they do with Sen. McCain in terms of values," says James McMahon of Brookside, an independent who says he gravitated toward Obama early.

Utah Democrats know that recruiting supporters means starting small and often staying there.

Just a handful of people attended the first meeting to organize southern Utah supporters at a local coffee shop May 28, McMahon says. A few weeks later, a barbecue in a St. George park drew about 100, he says. Nevertheless, volunteers such as Lindsey Witt of St. George remain determined.

"I'm voting for someone I think can really make a difference," Witt says. "Even though my vote may not be counted, I think it will be heard."

Utah is a state where conservative politics are often linked to its deeply religious population, a majority of whom are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jeff Eastwood, 51, of Toquerville, a member of the LDS Church who supports McCain, says he thinks Utah will probably remain a Republican stronghold because of the state's predominant religion.

"Generally we tend to follow people that have more conservative values," Eastwood says.

Wayne Holland, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party and a member of the LDS Church, says he believes there is a shift among young Mormons toward a more Democratic platform.

Stan Lockhart, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, disputes Holland's view. "If you look at the state of Utah, it's been voting Republican for generations," Lockhart says.

Rep. Jim Matheson, the only Democrat in Utah's five-member congressional delegation, shares the Mormon faith with the other four.

"There are people who are active in the LDS faith who belong to both political parties," he says. "We shouldn't oversimplify it in any other way."

Witt says she grew up believing the Republican Party best fit her moral and religious values. Then, she says, she saw Obama on Oprah. Witt began to study his platform and decided it aligned more precisely with her values.

"Contrary to popular belief, not all Mormons have to be Republicans," she says.

Aaron Ernest, an undecided voter from St. George, says he has noticed a minor political shift to the left in Utah. "I think the population becoming more diverse has a great deal to do with that," he says.

Holland, too, sees a political change. In 2006, 33 of the 57 federal, state and local candidates elected in densely populated Salt Lake County were Democrats, according to the county clerk's office. "I'm not saying that Utah is going to be a blue state by any means," he says. "But we can see progress."

Holland says the Obama campaign opened a fully staffed office in Salt Lake City this summer.

"Our job here in Utah is to take the energy for Obama and turn it into activism," says Suzanne Gelderman, the campaign's state director.

Ivette Barajas, Southwest regional communications director for the McCain campaign, says the campaign has a statewide volunteer organization in Utah and a "victory office" in Salt Lake City. "We also have volunteers from Utah going in to Colorado to be boots on the ground," she says.

Matheson, who has been elected four times as a self-described moderate Democrat, says Utah voters care more about the person than the party.

"In Utah, there's that streak of independence that characterizes the West," he says. "I have to work hard and meet a lot of people and make sure they know who I am as an individual. If people get to know candidates, the party label plays a less significant role in how they vote."

Passey reports daily for The Spectrum in St. George, Utah.