SALT LAKE CITY — Mike Pence used his trip to Utah on Thursday to try to sell Donald Trump to Republican voters in the Beehive state suspicious that the GOP presidential candidate may not share their conservative views.
Pence, who is popular with Utah’s Republican officials, told business leaders and politicians in Salt Lake City that it has been a privilege for him “to be able to stand with Donald Trump, a broad-shouldered American leader, who truly believes in the American dream.”
Pence said he and the billionaire candidate agree on many issues — including allowing families to enroll their children in schools other than those assigned to them by the public system.
“It’s something Donald Trump and I, in one of our very first conservations, we found complete alignment on,” Pence said. “He has a passion for school choice that proceeds, I think, out of his deep devotion to his own children.”
Trump has so far received a tepid response among Utah’s largely Republican electorate.
The presidential nominee has acknowledged he’s “having a tremendous problem in Utah,” winning over Utah Republicans and Mormons, who like cordial politicians and have been repelled by Trump’s in-your-face demeanor and positions like a proposal to temporarily bar foreign Muslims from the United States.
Many in Utah’s GOP, ranging from moderates to conservatives, have been torn for months about whether to support Trump.
But Pence, a conservative Indiana governor and former congressman, is seen a more traditional Republican figure helping many on Utah’s right find a reason to support Trump.
That includes Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who told reporters last month that he would vote for Trump in part because Pence brings “stability” to the campaign.
U.S. Sen. Mike Lee told reporters he invited Pence to speak at his policy summit in Salt Lake City Thursday but is not ready to back Trump.
“I’m a huge fan of Mike Pence. I really like him. I’ve been a fan of his for many years,” Lee said. “But his presence here does not involve his status as Donald Trump’s running mate. It involves his status as the governor of Indiana and a former congressman.”
But in Pence’s half-hour speech on education, he mentioned Donald Trump’s name a dozen times.
Lee said he has talked several times with Pence about Trump, plans to do so again Thursday and in particular wants to know more about Trump’s position on the balance of power between states and the U.S. government.
Trump has offered some clues, saying he prefers to keep public lands under federal control rather than handing more land over to the states — a position contrary to what Lee and other Utah Republicans want.
Lee said he won’t vote for Clinton but is open to voting for a third party candidate and will cast his vote based on principles, not a political party.
Former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina, a former Trump rival, and Herbert also spoke at the event.
Lee’s office originally said all speakers at the summit would be available to the media after their speeches, but the office announced Wednesday that Pence, Herbert and Fiorina would not take questions.
Lee’s spokesman Conn Carroll said in an email that the three didn’t want to take questions.
After the event, Pence was scheduled to appear at a private fundraising lunch for the Trump campaign in the Salt Lake City area hosted by Utah real estate investor Scott Keller, who previously held fundraisers for Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio.
Tickets for the event start at $10,000 a person.