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Politics & Government

After Narrow Loss In 2012, GOP's Mia Love Finds New Strength In Utah

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A rising Republican star is trying again for Congress this fall. Mia Love gained much attention in 2012, but lost a bid for Congress against incumbent Democrat Jim Matheson. Now the Democrat is retiring. Love is the front-runner to replace him in Utah, and if she does, she will become the first black, Republican woman elected to Congress ever. From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Terry Gildea reports.

TERRY GILDEA, BYLINE: When Mia Love talks about her narrow defeat in 2012, the one fact she can't forget is the number of votes that made up that margin.

MIA LOVE: Seven-hundred-sixty-eight. Who's counting? (Laughter).

GILDEA: That's right, just 768 votes.

LOVE: Well, you know, when you come within 768 votes of a very popular incumbent, there's something to be said about that. I think that the campaign team, although we didn't know what we were doing, I think they did a very good job.

GILDEA: But with Jim Matheson's retirement, Love is again chasing after the seat in Utah's Fourth Congressional District. And one GOP heavyweight was in town recently to support her.

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MITT ROMNEY: I'm convinced that she's not going to just be a congresswoman; she's going to be a great congresswoman.

GILDEA: Mitt Romney headlined a rally for Love near Provo earlier this month.

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ROMNEY: I love this great country, and the reason I'm still out campaigning is I want to campaign to see people like Mia Love in Congress. And she's going get there. You're going to get her there. She is the best. We're going to win this on November 4. Mia Love, your next congresswoman. Mia...

LOVE: I am running for you. I am running for Utah. I am running for freedom - run with me.

GILDEA: Love grew up on the East Coast with parents who immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti. She was raised Catholic, but early in her adult life, she met a Mormon serving a mission in Connecticut. She married him, converted to the Mormon faith and moved to Utah. The family settled in Saratoga Springs, a small, suburban community south of Salt Lake City. Love was elected to the city council and later became mayor. Republicans were drawn to her story, and in 2012 she spoke at the party's national convention.

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LOVE: Let me tell you about the America I know. My parents immigrated to this country with $10 in their pocket and hope that the America they heard about really did exist.

GILDEA: Love's opponent this year is Democrat Doug Owens, a business lawyer. Owens's father was Wayne Owens who represented Utah in Congress as a Democrat more than 20 years ago. He is trying to do what Matheson did successfully, paint Love as someone who cares more about national party politics than representing ordinary folks in Utah.

DOUG OWENS: Utah voters will think for themselves. They want somebody who's going to put Utah first, who's going to be independent, and that's what I offer.

GILDEA: Education funding, specifically federal student loans, has become a central issue. During her 2012 campaign, Love suggested ways to reduce spending - eliminating subsidized student loans and Pell Grants was on that list. Love hasn't called for similar cuts this time, but Owens has attacked her on the claim from two years ago with ads like this one.

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OWENS: Mia Love's extreme views on education will hurt Utah families, and that's why I'm running for Congress. I'm Doug Owens, and I want to make it easier for students to access higher education, not harder.

GILDEA: But in a recent debate with Owens, Love insisted that she only wants more state and local control of student loans.

LOVE: I am convinced that an unlimited flow of federal dollars into colleges has caused the rate of tuition to rise far faster than the rate of inflation, making it very difficult for middle-income families and lower-income families to receive a higher education.

GILDEA: Love has raised five times as much money as Owens, and a majority of traceable contributions came from out-of-state donors. An independent poll released this month shows Love ahead in the race by 9 percentage points, but an equal number of voters remain undecided. Owens hopes he can close that gap and pull off an upset. For NPR News, I'm Terry Gildea in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.