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SALT LAKE CITY — Four years ago, former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt was quietly making preparations for a contested Republican National Convention to ensure Mitt Romney secured the party’s nomination despite a contentious primary season.
“It was a real contingency we needed to prepare for. I had confidence that he would ultimately become the nominee,” Leavitt told reporters Tuesday. “The question was: Would we have to go through a contested convention to get there?”
At this point in 2012, Leavitt said the Romney campaign had struggled to win in key states such as Michigan and Ohio against the last in a series of conservative challengers, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
Santorum lost those states but continued to battle for delegates until dropping out of the race in April, allowing Romney to finally lock up the party’s nomination in advance of the convention.
But this year’s GOP front-runner, businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump, is almost certainly going to have to fight for the nomination at the party’s convention in Cleveland in July, Leavitt said at the Thought Leaders Symposium luncheon.
Leavitt shared what he learned as “chief delegate counter” for Romney with the 250 business and community leaders gathered at the Grand America Hotel for the event sponsored by the World Trade Center Utah and Zions Bank
Unlike 2012, when Leavitt was ready to protect Romney’s lead in the delegate count, this time he’s looking at scenarios where the convention choses someone other than the front-runner.
That could be one of the two other GOP candidates still in the race, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won all of Utah’s 40 Republican delegates in the state party’s March 22 caucus, or Leavitt’s pick, Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
If none of those picks can secure the 1,237 delegates needed for the nomination after multiple ballots, Leavitt said the party would turn to new candidates, a list that has included Romney as a possibility despite his insistence he’s not interested.
Leavitt said he doesn’t expect the GOP to have to look beyond Cruz and Kasich, calling nominating other candidates “highly unlikely. But we are in uncharted territory here.”
Romney’s longtime friend, real estate developer Kem Gardner, told the Deseret News after the speech that Romney took himself out of the running by labeling Trump a fraud and a phony in a recent speech at the University of Utah.
“He just lost all the Trump delegates at the convention … by calling him out. He knew that’s it,” Gardner said. “He was trying to save the Republican Party. I appreciate that he did that. I encouraged him.”
Indeed, a new poll showed 62 percent of Republican primary voters viewed Romney unfavorably. The Public Policy Polling survey also found only 28 percent of voters would be comfortable with Romney as their nominee this year.
Gardner, a Democrat, said he’s supporting former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for president. Gardner said he’s staying out of Romney’s efforts to stop Trump from becoming the GOP nominee.
“That’s his fight, not mine,” Gardner said.
Leavitt said Romney’s difficulties in the 2012 race led to the party shortening the primary calendar, limiting debates and moving up the convention date. The intent was to settle on a nominee by the end of March.
“They did not anticipate Donald Trump,” the three-term governor said, or a field that at one time included 17 Republican candidates initially and increased campaign spending through super PACs.
Trump’s message, he said, is taken from the, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” rant delivered by a rogue newscaster in the decades-old movie “Network” that taps into America’s frustration with the system.
“The chances that Donald Trump will get 1,237 are certainly not zero. But there are very many pathways under which he would not,” Leavitt said, noting that of the 10 contested GOP conventions, only three front-runners emerged with the nomination.
Still, if Trump ends up within 50 or so delegates of the nomination, Leavitt said that gap will likely be closed quickly. Campaigns, he said, are paying close attention to the delegates actually selected in the states.
They’re also ready to alter party rules just before the convention to favor their chances. Leavitt said he expects the biggest changes to party rules to come toward the end of the convention, if a nominee hasn’t been picked.
While there’s been talk of a third-party candidate, Leavitt said he has “examined these rules fairly carefully, and I don’t see how a candidate could achieve ballot status in enough states that they could have a chance of winning the election.”
Leavitt, who first got involved in presidential politics by working for then-President Ronald Reagan’s re-election in 1984 and served in then-President George W. Bush’s cabinet, did not sound optimistic about the GOP’s future.
“I do think this is a deeper schism in the Republican Party than we have seen before. It’s been magnified. I think it’s a reasonable question to ask as to whether or not the Republican Party will in fact unify with all three of the candidates,” he said.
Leavitt cited the recent Deseret News/KSL poll that found Utahns would vote for a Democrat for president for the first time since 1964 if Trump is the Republican nominee.
And he predicted there could be violence at both the Republican and Democratic national conventions this year, just as there has been between Trump supporters and backers of the other Democrat in the race, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“I just think there is some significant possibility that some level of that will occur,” Leavitt said. “I do think that’s a possibility. I’m not breaking any news there. We’re all conscious of it.”
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