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Calling himself the "only true conservative" in the presidential contests, independent candidate Evan McMullin told a group of about 50 people gathered at the Hinckley Institute of Politics on Thursday that a vote for him is a vote to show the world that "conservatism isn't bigotry."

McMullin, a Utah native, former CIA operative and congressional policy aide, had plenty of criticism for Democrat Hillary Clinton, but his harshest words were reserved for Donald Trump, the Republican candidate.

"I believe Donald Trump is a bonafide threat to our democracy," he said during the moderated conversation at the University of Utah, during which he said Trump was "cut from the same cloth" as dictators, in part because he has sought to divide Americans on issues pertaining to race and religion.

He made the remarks just a few miles away from where, several hours earlier, Trump running mate Mike Pence spoke at an event hosted by Sen. Mike Lee.

McMullin said he jumped into the race in early August because he felt conservatives should have an alternative to Trump and no better known, better financed person was preparing such a bid. Since then, he's secured a spot on the ballots of eight states, including Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and Colorado. And is trying to line up at least a handful more.

His long-shot bid for the presidency would require a historic election where both Clinton and Trump failed to get the 270 electoral votes required to win the White House, pushing the decision to the House of Representatives. Absent that, McMullin would like to at least win a state, something a third-party candidate hasn't accomplished in modern times.

His best bet might be Utah, the state where he was born. He is Mormon and received his undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University. McMullin, who lives in Washington, D.C., is basing his national campaign in Utah, that will rely heavily on paid campaign staff, social media and some paid advertising, most likely mailers and radio spots. His campaign is preparing to open its office in Utah in the next few days.

Speaking about Utah to a group of reporters after the event, McMullin said: "This is, I believe, a population that wants a different kind of leader in this country, a more tolerant, more inclusive leadership on the conservative side."

The most recent poll of Utah, conducted by Public Policy Polling in early August just days after McMullin entered the race and received significant media attention, showed McMullin with 9 percent of the vote in Utah, coming in fourth, behind Trump with 39 percent, Clinton at 24 percent and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson with 12 percent.

McMullin, a "Never Trump" candidate, differs from the Republican standard bearer on a number of issues. He's more pro-trade than Trump and more lenient on immigration reform, calling for improved border security combined with a path to legal status for undocumented residents. Trump on Wednesday reiterated his call for a border wall paid for by Mexico and a big increase in deportations.

McMullin told the university gathering that he supports education vouchers, allowing parents to move their children to the school of their choice, largely because he feels it would combat poverty. And he wants to reform the student-loan process to make colleges and universities financially liable for part of the costs if a graduate can't make the payments because he or she can't obtain a decent-paying job.

On foreign affairs, his specialty, McMullin said the United States should do its part to care for refugees, including from Syria, saying the world is watching how we care for "the most vulnerable people on the planet." And he criticized Trump's call for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States, saying that Muslims around the world have suffered more from the Islamic State and al Qaeda than anyone else.

"We don't have a Muslim problem, we have a terrorism problem and that is lost on Donald Trump," he said.

As it pertains to Clinton, McMullin criticized her performance as secretary of state, saying that she helped create a vacuum where the Islamic State formed in the Middle East. He also said her use of a private email server that included messages with classified information, endangered the nation's spies and intelligence workers.

"We just can't have this kind of corruption and unaccountability," he said.

If he can't stop Trump and win the presidency, McMullin, 40, has set a more modest goal and that is to spur on "a new generation of leadership." He has less than 10 weeks to make his case to voters throughout the country.

Twitter: @mattcanham