DAVID GREENE, HOST:
OK. We're also keeping our eye this morning on a special election in the state of Utah. Officially, this is to fill the House seat abandoned by Jason Chaffetz, who resigned last month to join Fox News. But this is really shaping up as a referendum on President Trump. Now, the general election is not until November, but Utah's 3rd District is so deeply red that the GOP primary next Tuesday is the real race here. Julia Ritchey from member station KUER tells us that voters are weighing three candidates with the man in the White House heavy on their minds.
JULIA RITCHEY, BYLINE: It's evening in Provo, an hour south of Salt Lake City. A few dozen people are sitting inside an auditorium. They're here for one of the final debates between the third district's Republican candidates before their primary on August 15. Married couple Jean and Mark Lau are undecided about which candidate to support.
MARK LAU: I would really like to see someone who would stand up to Trump and his crazy tweets and extemporaneous thoughts.
RITCHEY: Mark, who's retired, is like many of his Republican neighbors. He voted to re-elect Jason Chaffetz last November, but he didn't vote for president Trump, who performed poorly here compared to past Republican presidential candidates. Mark's wife, Jean, says she wants someone who can help Trump stay focused.
JEAN LAU: I'd like to see somebody who can get along with him but at the same time who can speak up their mind and say, this is not good.
RITCHEY: That candidate might be John Curtis, the popular mayor of Provo, Utah's third-largest city. He's emerged as a frontrunner in the race. The other two Republican candidates are Chris Herrod, a former state lawmaker and Tanner Ainge, who works in private equity and is the son of Boston Celtics General Manager Danny Ainge. Whoever wins the primary will face Democrat Kathie Allen, a local physician, this November. Branded as the most moderate, Curtis is the only candidate who didn't vote for Trump, a fact he's tried to downplay.
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JOHN CURTIS: I would aspire for the exact type of relationship I think that Donald Trump respects, which is good, thoughtful debate. I mean, he's not afraid of a debate, right?
RITCHEY: Ainge and Herrod are running to the right of Curtis and point out he was once a registered Democrat. Herrod has even championed Trump's more hard-line stances on immigration, an unpopular stance here in Utah, where Mormons support higher levels of immigration. And Herrod also supports Trump's claims that his campaign had nothing to do with Russia.
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CHRIS HERROD: People are tired - at least that I found - tired about talking about Trump and the collusion argument. And so the collusion argument, I think, has been way overblown.
RITCHEY: The candidates here are trying to walk a fine line between supporting a Republican president's agenda while downplaying any potential scandals. Twenty-eight-year-old Brad Talk stood outside the debate hall. He says he still supports Trump, but wishes there were a candidate more in the mold of Chaffetz, who aggressively investigated the Obama administration.
BRAD TALK: I think there isn't anybody like Chaffetz in this race right now. Obviously, that's something that is missing in this race, but we work with what we have.
RITCHEY: Scott Wessman, an unaffiliated voter, says he doesn't want the district's next member of Congress to be a rubber stamp for the Trump administration.
SCOTT WESSMAN: Independence from Trump is paramount for me personally. You know, anyone who sort of pledges fealty to Trump is inherently flawed.
RITCHEY: Wessman thinks a more pragmatic and less ideological representative would be a refreshing counterbalance to Washington's current dysfunction. For NPR News, I'm Julia Ritchey in Salt Lake City.
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