On the eve of Utah's presidential caucus, Republican front-runner Donald Trump tried some last-minute flattery to get the state's voters on his side.
"The evangelicals have been so amazing, everybody is so amazing, and do I love the Mormons, OK?" Trump said during a Salt Lake City rally, reported CNN. "Do I love the Mormons."
With Utah Republicans set to vote for their presidential nominee on March 22, the three remaining Republican candidates criss-crossed the state, looking to shore up support and air last-minute appeals. While polls show Trump maintains commanding leads California, New York and Arizona, the latest aggregate polling data on Real Clear Politics shows him trailing Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.
The last two polls of likely Utah Republican voters show Cruz up 24 points and 21 points on Trump, respectively. Forty delegates are up for grabs in the heavily Mormon state.
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In appealing to Utah's Mormons, Trump took swipes at former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, the 2012 Republican nominee who has emerged as one of Trump's loudest critics. Romney is a Mormon.
"I have many friends who live in Salt Lake. I have a lot of friends," Trump said at the Salt Lake City rally. "By the way, Mitt Romney is not one of them. Did he choke? Does this guy choke? He's a choke artist, I can't believe ... are you sure he's a Mormon? Are we sure? He choked! He choked, it was so sad."
Trump's criticism of Romney may have been calculated, and not just another throw-away comment by the candidate -- as CNN noted, Romeny "has been reluctant to share his Mormon faith in public life," and that reluctance may not sit well with some Mormon voters.
A story on World Religion News quoted Mormons who are Trump supporters saying they favor his "take-charge attitude," his decisiveness, and the perception that he would be a strong leader when it comes to foreign affairs.
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"You have a group who cares more about politics than the church, those Mormons tend to be Trump supporters," Matt Miles, a political science professor at Brigham Young University-Idaho, told World Religion News.
Others aren't too keen on the Republican front-runner. LDS.net, the official website of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, noted that Trump's campaign spokesperson conflated mainstream Mormons with unaffiliated polygamist sects.
In a late February post, LDS.org also pointed to a 2014 interview in which Trump said Romney lost the 2012 election because his faith was "alien," and used the word "unfortunate" to describe the religious makeup of Utah. Other candidates, the church noted, largely refrained from saying anything about Mormons.
"In other words, the uncorrected hostility between Donald Trump and Mormons is unprecedented in modern presidential politics," Christopher D. Cunningham wrote on the church's official website. "You may have to go back to [President] Grover Cleveland in 1889 to find similar anti-Mormon sentiment from a presidential campaign."