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Mitt Romney returned to Utah on Friday for the first time since announcing his candidacy for the presidency, basking in his status as the front-runner in the Republican field, but this time having to vie with former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. for Beehive State backers.
Romney brushed aside questions of having to contend with Huntsman, saying he considers him a friend and wishes him well.
But the crowd of 250 who gathered to hear Romney speak at Hires Big H in Salt Lake City on Friday seems to have already made up its mind between the two candidates with Utah ties.
"I don't like Huntsman," said Stan LeCheminant. "I think he kind of took that job [as ambassador to China] just to get to the forefront … then he dumps [President Barack] Obama. I think that is really rank."
Steve Wood said he likes that both Romney and Huntsman have business experience, but he's firmly behind Romney.
"Huntsman is a smart guy, but he's not as charismatic as Romney," said Wood. "I don't think he's got the same gravitas as Romney."
Lt. Gov. Greg Bell said he "thinks the world" of Huntsman, but has been a Romney supporter for a long time.
"These relationships have been established, and you get out there and the ambassador just came back. I was pretty well down the road by then," Bell said.
The rally was carefully chor-eographed, with steel barricades keeping the crowds away from Romney and the vintage cars like Romney, carefully polished products of Detroit meant to capture the nostalgia of the iconic Hires Big H Drive-in on 700 East.
Standing with his wife in the back of a pickup truck, Romney gave a stump speech, asserting that America elected an unproven president in Obama and his policies have "failed America."
"We need to have a president who has had a job if we're going to be able to create jobs," Romney said to hoots from the crowd. "There's nothing to be proud of with Barack Obama's economic policies. It has not worked. My policies will put people back to work and let America lead as it has in the past."
After a seven-minute speech, Romney shook hands, signed autographs and posed for dozens of photographs with adoring supporters gathered along the barriers.
One woman asked Romney, "What do you think of Jimmer going to the Kings?" Romney responded that now he has " a reason to root for Sacramento."
Mark Teerlink and Ashley Mosso had just stopped at Hires for a burger, not knowing Romney would be in town. While they were eating in their car, workers installed a row of barricades, trapping them in their parking spot. "We don't mind too much. We like Romney," said Teerlink.
Romney sat down for about 40 minutes inside the restaurant with a handpicked group of local businessmen a homebuilder, a grocery store owner, a banker and others who expressed their concern about government over-regulation, uncertainty with tax policies and the impending Obama health reforms that they said are impeding their business.
"I think it's time to take a page from the Olympics, where Mitt Romney showed up and rolled up his sleeves and got it fixed," said Marty White, of Alpine, who started a rock-crushing business that he and his partners recently sold.
Romney said Democrats in Congress have overreacted to the banking crisis, putting such stringent requirements on lending that it has "put a tourniquet on the banking system."
He promised the businessmen that, if he is elected, his first act would be to "grant a waiver from Obamacare to all 50 states."
And he said that Medicaid ought to be a state-run, block-granted program.
"Medicaid ought to be something led and managed by the states free of bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to care for your people," he said.
Friday's event was Romney's first visit to Utah since announcing his second bid for the Republican presidential nomination June 1.
In 2008, Romney pulled in nearly $5.5 million in campaign contributions from Utah donors, and dominated the state's presidential primary, winning 90 percent of the vote.
Earlier Friday, Romney participated in a fundraiser at the Orem home of Vivint home-security company CEO Todd Pedersen. In the evening he appeared at a dinner at The Grand America. Both events cost $1,000 to attend and $2,500 for admission to a special VIP reception.
Romney is scheduled to stay in Utah on Saturday, but he has no public events scheduled.
Romney at Hires
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