Mitt Romney laughs with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) as they walk on the tarmac… (Colin E. Braley / Associated…)
SALT LAKE CITY — Mitt Romney came to town to raise money, on the heels of fundraising reports that showed that he and Republicans outraised the president and Democrats in the month of May.
But he slipped in a few moments to help out long-time friend Sen. Orrin Hatch, who is facing a tough primary battle in Utah later this month.
Emphasis on the word "few."
After holding a rally in Iowa, Romney flew by private plane to Salt Lake City airport, where he was scheduled to do a photo-op with Hatch.
Perhaps the optics were bad – instead of allowing photographers and cameramen to capture images of Romney stepping off his plane, he was placed into a SUV with Hatch, and driven over to a waiting bank of reporters. The motorcade stopped about 80 yards away, and Romney and Hatch emerged, walking side-by-side to another waiting motorcade of SUVs. The men appeared to be chatting, and Romney chuckled and ignored a question shouted by a reporter.
The encounter lasted about perhaps a minute – a smidge longer than expected because the two men mistakenly walked to the wrong SUV -- but the images made the Salt Lake City evening newscasts, and will likely show up in an advertisement for Hatch in coming days.
Hatch was first elected to the Senate in 1976, but he faces a tough tea party-fueled challenge in this year's GOP primary. Candidates in this state can win the party nomination by capturing 60% of delegates' votes at a convention, but Hatch narrowly lost, forcing him into a June 26 battle with former state senator Dan Liljenquist.
The walk-by was Romney's sole public event in Utah, but he doesn't need any help here. Romney is deeply popular in this state – he went to college here, he is a Mormon like a majority of Utah residents and he turned around the faltering 2002 Olympic winter games staged in the state. While Romney no longer owns a home in Utah, he remains tied to the state. Two of his sons live here. He will hold a retreat later this month for more than 300 major donors in Dear Valley.
Romney and Hatch go back years – the senator endorsed Romney during his unsuccessful 2008 presidential run, and Romney has repeatedly backed him, endorsed him, recorded advertisements for him and named him a "special advisor" to his presidential campaign.
Liljenquist has tried to embrace Romney as well, noting that he used to work for "Mitt's company," though his time at Bain Capital was long after Romney left.
Utah is a source of two strengths for Romney – an army of volunteers who have already started working hard on his behalf in key states, as the Boston Globe reported, and money.
On Friday, he came to the Beehive state seeking the latter. He held a fundraising reception at the Grand America Hotel for tickets that begin at $2,500 per person. A photo with Romney went for $10,000. Later, he attended dinner at a home with major donors who were reportedly contributing as much as $50,000 to dine with a possible future president.
"Gosh, what a team here today, I can't get over it. This is like coming home again," Romney told about 150 people at the hotel reception. "When I come home to Utah, I remember the wonderful three years here for the Olympics. I loved it."
He lauded Utahans spirit of volunteerism and generosity, saying they "touched the hearts of people all over the world."
"I just want to say thank you Utah for tonight but also thank you to Utah for those glorious years and 17 greats of the Olympics and the days of the Paralympics. You showed the world and I will never forget. Thank you so much."
A man in the crowd screamed, "Thank you Mitt!"
Romney was introduced by Hatch.
"I can tell you right now Mitt is going to be the next president of the United States," he said, accompanied by a campaign film crew.
"The fact of the matter is this president – people like him, they know he's articulate, they know he's charismatic, they know he's a handsome guy, he's smart."
Romney interjected, "Okay, that's enough."
Hatch continued, "But deep down … they don't feel he's up to the job."
"We know whose up to the job, we in Utah more than any other place. We want to welcome you home to Utah, Mitt, you're going to be the next president of the United States."
As the campaign enters a summer lull, Romney is focused on fundraising. His advisers don't know if they can top May's $77 million haul, but they are optimistic about their fundraising prospects going forward and happy about their success so far
Spencer Zwick, hanging out on the tarmac after Romney departed, said he was "very pleased" by their May numbers.
"You hope for the very best," he said, but "I didn't anticipate that we would raise more than President Obama did."