Several prominent Utahns are pushing an initiative called Count My Vote that would change state law to allow candidates to bypass the party convention and capture the nomination in an open primary election. Romney, a popular figure in the Beehive State, could lend a big hand to the effort.
The former Republican presidential nominee faced a gantlet of tea party-filled caucuses during his White House race and worries about what the result of those contests could be if limited to only one faction of the party. Specifically, states that hold primaries should get more delegates at convention, he said.
"I think we should reward those states that award delegates to the convention based upon primaries," Romney told The Globe. "Primaries are the place where you see whose message is connecting with the largest number of people."
Romney told the newspaper his main focus is on the presidential nominating contests but that he would let his views be known in states that use caucuses and conventions to select U.S. Senate nominees. He didn't mention Utah, but The Globe noted that Sen. Mike Lee of Utah toppled then-Sen. Bob Bennett in 2010 through the GOP caucus system in the state.
Former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt is one of the main backers of the Count My Vote effort and is a longtime friend of Romney. Leavitt headed the planning for what would have been a Romney administration had he won the White House.
Rich McKeown, Leavitt's right-hand man, said seeing Romney come out for direct primary elections shows the effort is gaining steam.
"It's a really good thing," McKeown said. "I'm happy that's out there, and I'm happy with all the discussion that's happening around this issue because it indicates that it's got good traction."
But there are Republicans who say changing the system just helps protect the establishment and big-money candidates while hurting the chances of a regular person who wants to run for office.
"It's easy for a Mitt Romney to like the primary system because Mitt Romney was a candidate that had a lot of money and personal wealth that he could put into a campaign that a lot of candidates can't," said Don Guymon, a member of the Utah GOP's executive committee. "The caucus-convention system allows a candidate who does not have a lot of money to participate in the system."
It's not surprising Romney would back the change, Guymon adds, because he had nominated Bennett for re-election and Romney's son Josh could be a candidate for office in Utah at some point.
The Count My Vote effort needs 102,000 signatures from 26 of Utah's 29 state Senate districts by April 15 to get on next year's ballot. The group hopes to gather 130,000 signatures by then.
Kirk Jowers, head of the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics and a founder of Count My Vote, said he's not taking Romney's comments as an endorsement, but added that the group welcomes them to the discussion.
Romney's remarks, Jowers said, "certainly go hand in hand with the [County My Vote] message that we need greater participation, not less, fewer barriers for people to vote and a bigger tent for the Republican Party."