Marco Rubio Most Likely to Win GOP Debate in the Beehive State

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Battle of wits, or grown men throwing fits? On March 21, 2016 Republican presidential debates will be coming to Salt Lake City. This will mark the first time that a presidential debate of any kind has been hosted in Utah, adding to the long list of novelties that have seemed to shape this year’s unusual election cycle.

Governor Gary Herbert and James Evans, chairman of the Utah Republican Party, are “excited to welcome the Republican Party to Utah at such a crucial time in the nominating process,” according to an article published in The Salt Lake Tribune.

The debate will be held at a crucial time, just one day before Utah’s Republican caucus. The timing begs the question — who among these quarrelling candidates really reflects the views of Utah Republicans? I’m not convinced any of them do, but based on current polling data, it looks like Marco Rubio will probably get the nod from our beloved Beehive State.

Many of Utah’s leading politicians, including Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, House Speaker Greg Hughes, and four other members of the Utah House have publicly endorsed Rubio, but he is by no means a consensus candidate among the state’s ranking Republicans. Utah Republican Party Vice Chairman Phill Wright, for instance, is spearheading Ted Cruz’s Utah campaign with the support of about half a dozen other prominent current and former state representatives. Senator Orrin Hatch was backing Jeb Bush until he bowed out after a poor show at the S.C. caucuses. Bush’s well-advised surrender means there will probably only be three frontrunners left standing by the time the debates arrive in SLC. The third is Donald Trump, whose local grassroots campaign is called “Utah Wants Trump.”

“Utah Wants Trump” is being led by Don Peay, a wealthy outdoorsman whose belief that publicly held lands are a form of socialism and should thus be abolished has prompted vehement backlash from environmental groups and constitutionalists across the country. According to Peay, who recently returned from a pheasant hunting trip with Trump’s sons, “The Utah people will grow to love the Trump family as they see how Don Jr., Ivanka and Eric work with their dad on a daily basis … They’ve built this tremendous company. They work together. They play together.” But will Utahns buy this bogus image of Trump as a wholesome, hardworking family man? We’re talking about a guy who said on “The View:” “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” That brand of “family values” might appeal to some Utahns, but hopefully not the majority of conservatives in this state.

Polling data from Utahpolicy.com seems to support my conclusion, with Trump garnishing a mere 18 percent of the Republican vote. Rubio with 24 percent, and Cruz, in a close second, with 22 percent. However, this data was collected prior to Bush backing out of the race, which means his nine percent is now up in the air. And I think it’s safe to assume Ben Carson won’t last until March 21, so his nine percent of the vote will probably be on the table, as well — and so will Kasich’s four percent. Additionally, 11 percent of Republican voters say they don’t know who they’re going to pick come caucus time.

By virtue of the heated string of personal attacks lobbed back and forth between Bush and Trump over recent months, I doubt Bush supporters will turn to Trump as their second choice. Many of Bush’s big donors have now thrust their support (and money) behind Rubio, making him seem like the obvious beneficiary of those recently freed-up votes. Given that many Bush supporters also backed Mitt Romney in 2012 and that Rubio was also Mormon (for a brief period), I expect to see LDS leaders eventually come out for Rubio. My gut feeling is that most of those undecided voters will march to the beat of the Church, and cast their lots in with Rubio.

My guess is that Carson’s eclectic cadre of supporters, as well as Kasich’s, will be divided among the three frontrunners before the SLC debate, with the lion’s share going to Trump. Even so, I anticipate that enough conservative voters who favor an aggressive, hard-line immigration policy but whose family values and moral sensibilities preclude them from supporting Trump will fall to Cruz, cementing his second place finish behind Rubio.

Regardless of how the caucuses actually play out come March, I’m just glad the Republican Circus will be making a stop in the city of Salt Lake. And who knows, maybe once Utah Republicans get a chance to see, up-close, the feces-throwing and name-calling that has characterized their party’s debates thus far, they’ll be fed up enough to vote for Bernie Sanders come Nov. 8. A guy can dream …

letters@chronicle.utah.edu

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