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Four years ago, when Democratic and Republican front-runners began to emerge in the presidential race, the joke went like this:

The country could have its first African American president (Barack Obama), its first woman president (Hillary Clinton), or its first Mormon president (Mitt Romney). So why not elect Gladys Knight and get all three?

Well, now there is Mia Love.

The first-term mayor of the small, 14-year-old city of Saratoga Springs in Utah County has filed to run for Congress in the 4th Congressional District, although she has not yet staged her formal announcement.

If she were elected, she would be the first African-American Republican woman to serve in Congress.

That has generated some excitement in GOP circles across the country, including reported support from former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steel and conservative firebrand Allen West, elected to Congress from Florida two years ago.

"Mia Love has my endorsement and I look forward to her joining us in January 2013," West said in an email.

West and Steele are high-profile African-American Republicans.

But Love, a 36-year-old mother of three, says she does not want her race or gender to define her. She expects support to come because of her conservative policy positions and her skills.

When a television reporter asked recently if her race would become an issue in a congressional battle, she deadpanned, "Do you think anyone will notice?"

Republican insiders around the country certainly are.

At a recent strategy meeting of the National Republican Congressional Committee at the Capitol Hill Club, GOP candidates for key races across the country were discussed and a computer map of targeted congressional districts was shown with potential candidates' names in each highlighted district. The only candidate highlighted in Utah's 4th District, sources have told me, was Mia Love.

That was after state Rep. Carl Wimmer, R-Herriman, a better-known candidate, made trips to Washington to woo support and raised, he has said, more than $100,000.

Now there is another high-profile Republican candidate in the race, Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, R-Orem, who is best known for his tough stance on illegal immigration and the strict-enforcement bill he sponsored in the Legislature.

Love's surging profile nationally has apparently caused angst in some Republican circles locally, since she is a threat to at least two sitting state legislators who feel they are ready for an upgrade.

Self-described tea party advocates have blasted her on Republican Facebook pages for participating in a huge property tax increase in her town when she was on the city council.

But those claims are misleading and it will be interesting to see how they play out. Will GOP delegates at the Republican State Convention next year take the time to examine and understand exactly what happened in Saratoga Springs? Or will they take the monkey-see, monkey-do approach by following the right-wing guru Grover Norquist's dogma that any tax hike ever, for any reason, will doom you to hell?

When Saratoga Springs was incorporated in 1997, it was an agricultural oasis, with just two state roads and scarce infrastructure. The population was 1,000. The city survived on the low agriculture tax because of a housing boom over the next few years which paid for services with building permit fees. But when housing prices collapsed in 2008, the city was put in a desperate, downward financial spiral because its population had climbed to 18,000.

Love was part of the city council that approved a transformation from the agriculture tax to municipal tax, a result of about a 24 percent tax increase, much less than the figures being thrown around on the Internet. She also worked with other city council members to drastically cut expenses, reducing the city's shortfall from $3.5 million to $779,000.

Saratoga Springs now has a AA+ bond rating, the highest possible for a city of its size.

But will any of that resonate in the tea party environment, or will just the words tax hike trump any serious discussion.

We'll see. —