SALT LAKE CITY — Both Jon Huntsman Jr. and Mitt Romney said Tuesday they'll be competitive in next year's Utah presidential primary, whether it's held in June as planned or moved up to February.
"We're happy with any primary outcome," Huntsman told the Deseret News during a campaign stop at a Taylorsville microbiology lab. "We'll be competitive whether it's where it is today or whether it's moved up."
The former governor and U.S. ambassador to China said he had supported holding primary elections earlier to boost campaign-related spending in Utah and ensure candidates paid attention to the state.
"We did talk about moving the primary up when we were governor, arguing that we should move it up," said Huntsman, who advocated a Western states primary. "As you become part of the mix, it's good for the economy as well. So there's an economic development component as well."
But Utah's Feb. 5, 2008, Republican and Democratic primary elections were largely overshadowed by primaries and caucuses held in 24 states across the country on so-called "Super Tuesday."
Romney won an unprecedented 90 percent of the vote in Utah's 2008 GOP primary against the party's eventual nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain and remains popular in the state where he served as the leader of the 2002 Winter Olympics.
"We look forward to the primary and will be competitive there whenever it is held," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement.
Pollster Dan Jones said the sooner the primary election is held, the better Romney would likely do against Huntsman, a popular Utah governor.
"In my opinion, I think Huntsman will close some on Romney in Utah," Jones said. "He's just really getting started."
A recent Dan Jones & Associates poll for Deseret News/KSL-TV found Romney was far and away the most popular choice among likely GOP primary voters, with the support of 60 percent of the registered voters polled to 16 percent for Huntsman.
The 2011 Legislature declined to fund the estimated $2.5 million to $3 million cost of a separate presidential primary next year. The state Republican Party then decided its primary would be held on the same day as other primary races, June 26.
"There was not a big appetite because of the money," Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, said. "We didn't think based on what happened before, it would have much of an impact."
Waddoups, a Romney supporter, said an early primary still isn't worth the money in what looks to be another tight budget year. "Where would they get it? Unless revenues are up, all the money's been spent."
But Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, also a Romney supporter, as is Gov. Gary Herbert, said he's hoping to change lawmakers' minds.
"It definitely has a cost to it, but it also has the promise of Utah difference," the lieutenant governor said. Waiting, he said, means the state would have little impact, especially as the now-crowded field of GOP candidates narrows.
The national press is already focusing attention on the race between Romney and Huntsman, with some billing it as the "Mormon Primary," since both are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Bell said he believed the Romney campaign would prefer an earlier primary. For Huntsman, "maybe it would be a showdown," but it could also be a big win, the lieutenant governor said.
Although there has been speculation Romney's campaign is behind the push for a February primary, Bell said he's been working on it for months — even before Huntsman was seen as a likely candidate.
"Now it's all the more intriguing," Bell said.
Herbert spokeswoman Ally Isom said the governor had not been pressured by Romney's campaign to move up Utah's primary.
"The governor appreciates the value of an early primary, particularly in the opportunity it provides to elevate Utah's issues on a national level," Isom said. "The bottom line will be the cost of holding a primary, and that will be a legislative decision."
At least one lawmaker agrees Utah's presidential primary should be held earlier.
"The fact is, with two prominent candidates both with strong Utah ties, this may be one of the rare circumstances where Utah has a stake in selecting the president," Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, said.
Bramble said regardless of whether Romney would be helped by an earlier primary date, it's worth taking another look at making the change. The issue was raised in the Senate GOP caucus a few weeks ago and is expected to come up again next month.
"Utah can't have it both ways," Bramble said. "We can't complain about having no impact " and then not take advantage of an opportunity to influence the national race.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, said she wasn't convinced an earlier primary is a good idea — or even one that lawmakers will be asked to consider.
"I've only heard rumors about it at this point, so I'm not even sure how serious it is," Lockhart said. "No one's made a request."