Mitt Romney skips mention of Senate campaign, but extols ‘how much Utah has to teach the nation’ during Salt Lake City speech

Deflects questions about whether he will run for the Sen. Orrin Hatch seat.<br>

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Mitt Romney is pursued by the media hoping to get an answer to a possible run for senate after he spoke at the Utah Economic Outlook & Policy Summit 2018, hosted by the Salt Lake Chamber at the Salt Lake City Marriott Downtown at City Creek on Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2018.

While he is widely expected to run for the seat being vacated by retiring Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, Mitt Romney managed to avoid any mention of a campaign Tuesday — even when asked directly about his intentions.

“I have nothing for you on that topic,” he told moderator Natalie Gochnour, director of the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, during a Q&A after his address at an annual economic summit in Salt Lake City.

If you did run, Gochnour pressed on, what would you hope to accomplish?

“I’m not going to answer that either,” he said with a smile and a wave of the hand.

Still, despite his efforts to hush the speculation, Romney did just as much to stoke it. For much of his 30-minute speech at the Salt Lake Chamber event, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee focused on “how much Utah has to teach the nation.”

He flipped through a presentation with slides detailing how the state beats the nation with its smaller rate of growth for annual debt, how it has reduced carbon emissions more quickly, how its exports are increasing more steadily, how it has a higher proportion of people in the workforce.

“Governor,” he said, nodding to Gary Herbert sitting in the front row, “I know you’re smiling ear to ear.”

But some of those achievements in Utah — where Romney has a home and actively votes as a Holladay resident — are the areas where he believes Congress faces the toughest challenges.

Romney would like to see more done to limit the national debt by reforming entitlement programs. He wants a plan to combat human-caused climate change. He hopes for more action on poverty and education. And he sees no need for “vast deportations” for young immigrants under the soon-to-be defunct Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The rundown seemed to hint at the positions he’d take if running for office. By the cheers and claps and standing ovation from the crowd, it also sounded as if it would garner support.

Romney has already piled up would-be endorsements from leaders across the state and nation, including Jon Huntsman Sr. and Jeb Bush. President Donald Trump, too, called to encourage him to run, a source close to the White House told The Tribune, though Romney would only reveal Tuesday that he’d had “cordial conversations” with the president without commenting on the topic.

When asked by reporters about his broad support in Utah — which he won with roughly 73 percent of the vote in the 2012 presidential election — Romney vaguely responded that some residents may like him, “but some don’t.” He won plenty of favor in Utah after helping to host the 2002 winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The Mormon and former governor of Massachusetts on Tuesday called the Olympics “one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.”

He didn’t frame his presidential bid in the same light.

“I wanted to run for president in the worst way my whole life,” Romney said, paraphrasing George McGovern, a Democrat who ran for president in 1972 and lost. “And that’s just what I did.”

Still, he said there’s a lot that’s going right in Washington. Romney applauded the tax reform package passed in December, saying lowering the corporate rate was “a good idea” that he also pushed for during his campaign. He’s “pleased,” too, to see Trump’s administration “taking a weed wacker to regulation.”

Even more could be accomplished, Romney argued, if the federal government followed Utah’s example of “laboratory democracy.” That would mean working across party lines more and governing with “goodness.”

In weighing whether to step into a leadership role himself or remain “an interested citizen,” as Gochnour teased him, Romney said the most important factor is whether his experiences could “contribute to the well-being and the promotion of the interests of Utah.”

“Whether that would be me or anybody who considers public service, that would be the primary consideration.”