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Mitt Romney facing complex Utah nominating system in Senate race

Former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney smiles as he declares his candidacy for the U.S. Senate at the state elections office Thursday, March 15, 2018, at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

U.S. Senate hopeful Mitt Romney will speak to thousands of Utah Republicans gathering Saturday at a party convention to vote for candidates ranging from Congress to state Legislature.

He's going to face off against nearly a dozen contenders in a fight to secure the support of far-right-leaning party delegates, but even if he loses he'll be on the Republican primary ballot because he's already won a spot by gathering voter signatures.

That path, though, is relatively new and it's still a source of major contention in the party.

Some say it takes power away from Utah's traditional caucus-and-convention system for nominating candidates, while others say it lets more people get involved in the process even if they don't have time to become delegates.

Some questions and answers about the conventions and Utah's nominating process:

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HOW DOES THE NOMINATION PROCESS WORK?

Utah now offers two paths to run for office. Candidates can participate in long-standing party conventions where they vie for the support of several thousand delegates, who are core party members elected by their neighbors.

If a candidate wins at least 60 percent of the delegate votes, he or she is declared the winner. If no candidate clears that threshold, then the top two vote-getters compete in the June primary.

The newer option allows candidates to gather voter signatures to get their names on the primary ballot, no matter what happens at the convention.

Candidates can choose to take the convention path, the signature-gathering path, or both.

Candidates who have chosen to take both paths in past elections include Republicans Gov. Gary Herbert and U.S. Sen. Mike Lee.

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IF SOMEONE WINS 60 PERCENT AT THE CONVENTION, DO THEY BECOME THE NOMINEE?

Not necessarily. Under the new law, anyone coming out of the convention as a winner must still compete in the primary against candidates that gathered signatures.

In the GOP race to replace Sen. Orrin Hatch, Romney's choice to use the signature-gathering path could hurt him with delegates who see that option as a rejection of their judgment. But the tactic also gives him a backup plan and another shot at the nomination in June if he fails to win enough support Saturday.

On the other hand, if Romney wins at the convention he'll secure the GOP nomination outright because none of the other candidates have gathered enough signatures to qualify for the ballot.

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WHY DID LAWMAKERS ADD THE NEW SIGNATURE-GATHERING METHOD?

They were trying to boost voter participation. The 2014 law was a compromise reached with a group called Count My Vote that pushed to get rid of the convention system, arguing it is difficult because it requires people to attend meetings in person. They began pushing for primaries after longtime Sen. Bob Bennett was ousted at the convention in 2010 amid a rise in support for the tea party.

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WHAT DO CONVENTIONS LOOK LIKE?

Thousands of Republican delegates will gather representing various neighborhood districts, where they were picked by voters. Many candidates begin courting delegates before the conventions with phone calls, campaign mailers or meetings where they provide food and speak to a group. They'll continue making their pitch on Saturday, setting up campaign booths, handing out buttons or signs, and giving short speeches before voting starts.

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