Saturday February 24th, 2018 10:48AM

AP sources: Mitt Romney to launch Senate campaign Thursday

By The Associated Press
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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney will announce Thursday that he's running for the Utah Senate seat held by retiring Orrin Hatch, three people with direct knowledge of the plan confirmed Wednesday.

He'll be a heavy favorite to keep the seat in Republican hands.

The 70-year-old Romney, once a harsh critic of President Donald Trump, will release an online video Thursday announcing his Senate bid. His first public appearance as a Senate candidate will come Friday night at a county Republican dinner in Provo.

Those with knowledge of his plans spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak publicly.

Despite a drama-filled history with Trump, Romney is not expected to address the combative president directly in the announcement video. Those close to him say he plans a hyper-local focus on Utah issues throughout the Senate campaign.

His announcement video will suggest that Washington has much to learn from Utah.

Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and one of the most famous Mormons, is widely liked and respected in Utah, which is heavily Mormon.

He moved to Utah after losing the 2012 presidential election. That was a decade after he helped turn around the scandal-plagued 2002 Winter Olympics.

In addition to his instant name recognition, Romney has a deep network of fundraisers and his own personal wealth to help carry him. Those close to him suggest he will not seek financial aid from any super PACs or Washington-based campaign committees.

If he becomes Utah's next senator, some supporters hope that the one-time Trump critic could serve as a political and moral counterweight to a president they see as divisive, erratic and undignified.

During the 2016 presidential election, Romney gave a scathing speech in which he called Trump "a phony" who was "playing the American public for suckers" and was unfit to be president.

He softened his stance after Trump won the presidency and put himself forward as a candidate for secretary of state. But he resumed his criticism last year, calling out the president for blaming "both sides" following a deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Trump, in turn, has criticized Romney for his failed presidential bids in 2008 and 2012, saying he "choked like a dog."

Any efforts by Trump to block Romney are unlikely to resonate in Utah, where the president received a lukewarm reception from Mormons who were repelled by his brash demeanor and comments about women and minorities.

Romney isn't expected to face any serious challenges for the seat. Even Utah's conservatives, who see him as too moderate and establishment for their liking, admit they respect him and are unlikely to block him.

However, some in the state see Romney as an outsider who is simply banking on his fame. The Utah Republican Party chairman took the unusual step Wednesday of criticizing the man who is expected to be his party's Senate nominee.

Rob Anderson told The Salt Lake Tribune that Romney is "keeping out candidates that I think would be a better fit for Utah because, let's face it, Mitt Romney doesn't live here, his kids weren't born here, he doesn't shop here."

Anderson did not return messages from the AP seeking comment.

Romney was treated last year for prostate cancer, which an aide said was removed surgically and found not to have spread.

Hatch plans to retire after 2018, following more than four decades in the Senate. One of the longest-serving senators in U.S. history, Hatch began floating Romney's name last year as his potential successor.

When Hatch won re-election in 2012, he pledged that his seventh term would be his last. He flirted with breaking that promise, suggesting he might run again in 2018 with the encouragement of Trump, who has sought to block Romney.

In the end, Hatch decided to stick with his promise, saying, "Every good fighter knows when to hang up the gloves."

___

AP writer Peoples reported from New York City.

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