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The 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, endorsed Gov. Gary Herbert's re-election bid Thursday, saying his leadership on the economy warrants four more years for the incumbent governor.

Romney said that, while the recovery from the economic recession has proven challenging and the national economy remains sluggish and "is drifting off course more and more every day … in Utah, the story is remarkably different."

Romney said that Herbert's leadership and conservative principles have made the state a model for the rest of the country.

Romney is wildly popular in Utah, especially among Republicans. The former head of the Salt Lake Winter Olympics in 2002 won 72 percent of the vote in the state in the 2012 presidential race and won 93 percent in the Republican primary.

But Romney likely doesn't have that much clout in Utah anymore, according to Dave Hansen, campaign manager for Herbert's primary opponent, Overstock chairman Jonathan Johnson.

"At this point in time, I don't think [it matters]," Hansen said. "It was to be expected and Jonathan has never been the choice of the establishment types. … I'm surprised it hadn't happened before now."

In the statement released by the campaign, Romney said that Utah has kept taxes low during Herbert's tenure, "the lowest they've been in 20 years." Johnson has criticized Herbert for raising taxes, including an increase to the gas tax and a property tax hike to help fund education.

"Working with business — not against it — unemployment in Utah has dropped to one of the lowest rates in the nation and businesses small and large have created over 219,000 jobs," Romney went on to say.

He said that the economic growth the state has seen has made possible a $1.8 billion increase in education spending over the past five years.

"That's a record Gary Herbert can be proud of and that's a record Utah can be proud of," Romney said. "I encourage you to vote to keep Utah strong. Vote to re-elect Gov. Gary Herbert."

Later in the day, Johnson's campaign tweeted a recorded endorsement by actor Wilford Brimley, who was friends with Johnson's parents and said he could be "one of the best governors in America."

A recent Tribune poll showed Herbert holding a commanding 69-24 lead, although Johnson's campaign says the race is much closer.

Twitter: @RobertGehrke