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Tampa, Fla. • In the sea of delegates at the Republican National Convention, there's one group of Mitt Romney fans that doesn't just think he's a great candidate, they think he's a great friend.
Although Romney was born in Michigan and lived most of his life in Massachusetts, Utah has adopted him as a favorite son, and many Republicans from the Beehive State have their personal stories of rubbing shoulders with Romney.
"This is my third time as a delegate, [and] it's the first time where I feel like a friend, someone I know, is the nominee," says former Utah House Speaker Dave Clark.
For most Utahns, the Olympics was their first introduction to the man now leading the Republican ticket this fall.
Romney swooped in after a scandal rocked the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and many in the state credit him for leading the Games away from financial disaster and saving the state from embarrassment.
Tack on the four years Romney lived in Utah while at Brigham Young University, the home he owned in Deer Valley for years and, of course, the Mormon faith he shares with about 60 percent of Utahns and you've got a very excited hometown crowd cheering on their local-kid-does-good.
Utah Republican Party Chairman Thomas Wright noted that the delegation landed fairly good seats at the Tampa Bay Times Forum, near Romney's running mate Paul Ryan's home-state delegation from Wisconsin and a confetti toss from where Romney will accept the nomination Thursday.
"Governor Romney hasn't forgotten his friends in Utah," Wright told the delegation early Monday.
Beyond some friends Romney has in Utah's convention group, there're also some with closer ties: Rep. Jason Chaffetz has served as a surrogate for Romney across the country; Kirk Jowers, the head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics, worked as a lawyer for a pro-Romney political action committee; and Taylor Leavitt is the son of ex-Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt who is now heading up Romney's transition team should he win the White House.
One of Romney's sons, Josh Romney, is a delegate, too.
The Utah Republicans in Tampa heard from Josh Romney on Monday and are hoping to see other Romney family members attend the delegation meeting later this week, but the former Massachusetts governor isn't expected to drop by.
Then again, as Gov. Gary Herbert notes, he doesn't need to because the Utahns have already shaken his hand many times before.
"I think I know him pretty well," says Herbert, who first met the Republican White House contender when Herbert was a Utah County commissioner during the Olympics. "I consider him a friend. He's called me a friend."
Utahns have contributed about $4.8 million to Romney's campaign so far this cycle and that's in addition to millions some businesses in the state have forked over to a super political action committee backing his candidacy. And, as Herbert noted, it's a very good bet that Utah will vote for Romney come November. The last time the Beehive State went for a Democratic presidential candidate was in 1964, when Lyndon B. Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater in a landslide.
House Majority Leader Brad Dee says Utahns have had the opportunity to see Romney's personal side, know his family and have witnessed his ability to lead.
"To me, he's a very approachable person," Dee said. "That's the side the nation needs to see. We in Utah already know that side."