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Utah's Republican governor under fire over immigration

By Bob Bernick

SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Two weeks after Utah's Republican Governor Gary Herbert signed into law sweeping immigration reforms, the backlash is still being felt across this conservative state, and Herbert faces possible primary challengers when he seeks reelection next year.

Herbert on March 15 signed a two-pronged package of immigration laws comprised of four bills he called "the Utah solution," including an enforcement measure and another that would create a guest-worker program.

The enforcement measure is weaker than what Arizona is seeking to implement. While that state would allow police to check the immigration status of anyone stopped by officers -- including for traffic violations -- the Utah bill applies only to those arrested for felonies or serious misdemeanors.

The Utah guest worker program allows illegal immigrants in the state to pay a fee and continue at their jobs. That angers conservatives, and because immigration is the federal government's domain, critics say the program could unravel.

Herbert, who said at the time that Utah was doing "the right thing" in passing the reforms, told Reuters in an interview that he was prepared for an election challenge.

"It's hard to know the ramifications of any decision I make. I'm sure there are people critical of any of the thousands of decisions I make," he said, adding that it would be "not too surprising" if candidates used the immigration laws as a platform to run against him.

Herbert, a former county commissioner and real estate agent, faced no serious Republican opposition in his 2010 reelection, where he ran to serve out the final two years of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s term.

Then lieutenant governor, he took the top job when Huntsman resigned to become ambassador to China, a post he soon vacates as he considers a possible run for the U.S. presidency in 2012.

Utah is one of the most conservative states in the nation, with local, state and federal Republican candidates usually winning election easily against minority Democratic opponents. Herbert won the 2010 general election handily.

Herbert worked hard behind the scenes to get the immigration bills through Utah's legislature, and won praise over the guest worker program from the Obama administration and Washington Democrats, along with moderate Republicans.

'AMNESTY PURE AND SIMPLE'

But complaints have poured in from Tea Party activists and anti-illegal immigrant groups.

Ron Mortensen is the leader of a local 9-12 group linked to conservative commentator Glenn Beck, said as the main guest worker bill worked its way to final legislative votes: "This is amnesty, pure and simple, and it's against" the U.S. Constitution.

U.S. Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Tea Party favorite, has also criticized the guest worker bill. "If I had been governor, I would have vetoed it," the Utah Republican said on Friday.

And it is Chaffetz' name that is now being bantered about by anti-illegal immigration groups as a possible challenger to Herbert in the Republican nomination contest next year.

Chaffetz said running for governor next year "is not the projection" he's looking at, adding that he was considering a challenge to Senator Orrin Hatch in 2012.

But Herbert is clearly hearing the same rumors.

"I hope these new laws will be motivation for our congressional delegation to help lead" on immigration, he said, adding: "They can't sit on the sidelines twiddling their thumbs; it's time for them to get involved."

Chaffetz said he's worked hard on immigration legislation in the past and plans on sponsoring a bill "that could fix this" sometime over the next two years.

While some conservative Utah Republicans may not like the guest worker bill or how the enforcement measure was watered down, the bills are "reflective of mainstream Utah," Herbert said.

"And that is the group that I should look out for. Remember, the (guest worker) bill doesn't become law until 2013. Who knows what may happen on the federal level by then; what other solutions can be found," he said.

(Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Greg McCune)

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