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Black GOP House candidate praises Trump in convention speech

WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 19: Former NFL player Burgess Owens testifies during a hearing on slavery reparations held by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on June 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. The subcommittee debated the H.R. 40 bill, which proposes a commission be formed to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 19: Former NFL player Burgess Owens testifies during a hearing on slavery reparations held by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties on June 19, 2019 in Washington, DC. The subcommittee debated the H.R. 40 bill, which proposes a commission be formed to study and develop reparation proposals for African-Americans. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images) (2019 Getty Images)

SALT LAKE CITY – A Black conservative running for Congress in Utah declared at the Republican National Convention that America needs more leaders like President Donald Trump who stand by their principles, won’t compromise and “will stand up to the lawlessness supported by the radical left.”

Republican Burgess Owens on Wednesday decried civil unrest that’s followed some racial injustice protests and said America is at a crossroads in November.

“Mobs torch our cities while popular members of Congress promote the same socialism my father fought against in World War II,” Owens said.

He said minorities and women enjoyed unprecedented prosperity under the Trump administration and criticized a comment Democrat Joe Biden made about race, saying “We have a Democratic candidate for president that says I'm not Black if I don't vote for him.”

Owens is in a race that could test GOP’s ability to recapture the suburban districts that powered 2018’s blue wave and gave Democrats control of the House.

Owens, a former NFL player and Fox News commentator, handily won the Republican primary by running to the right of his opponents. The political newcomer is trying to reclaim the suburban Salt Lake City district once held by Mia Love, another Black conservative who was the first Black Republican woman elected to the House.

She lost in a tight race in 2018 to a moderate Democrat, Ben McAdams.

Since his primary victory, Owens, 69, has come under scrutiny for his May appearance on a YouTube show tied to QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory that’s been increasingly creeping into politics.

Owens didn’t know about the show’s ties to QAnon, didn’t discuss it on the program and doesn’t believe in it himself, spokesman Jesse Ranney said. But some Republicans are pushing back on QAnon, and the appearance could become a liability in the swing suburban district.

“The Owens campaign is going to have to be very careful,” said Damon Cann, a political science professor at Utah State University who’s had informal advisory conversations with the campaign.

One former Republican state lawmaker called on Owens’ appearance to be pulled from the convention, saying even the appearance of a connection with QAnon should disqualify him. But Trump has suggested he appreciated supporters of the theory were backing his candidacy.

The convention has featured other Republicans of color as Trump seeks to expand his voting base, including Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, the daughter of Indian immigrants.

Owens grew up in segregated Tallahassee, Florida, earned a football scholarship to the University of Miami and later helped the Oakland Raiders win the 1980 Super Bowl. He converted to the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints near the end of his football career.

He has mentioned his athletic career during appearances on Fox News, where he disagreed with athletes kneeling during the national anthem in support of Black Lives Matter. During a June primary debate, Owens answered a question about bipartisanship in part by saying he refused to negotiate with “people who hate our country” and decried “Marxists and socialists.”

In the general election, he'll be facing McAdams, a former mayor who was one of several Democrats who flipped congressional seats in red-leaning districts in 2018 by focusing on kitchen-table issues like health care and by breaking with party leaders at times.

This year, both candidates face new terrain amid the coronavirus pandemic and protests over police brutality continue around the country, including the Salt Lake City suburbs.

Owens will have to walk a careful line on Trump, rallying the president's supporters even as he reaches out to voters in a state skeptical of him. It was a dilemma for Love, who was critical of Trump at times, including when he used an expletive to refer to her parents' home country of Haiti.

Owens has backed the president and received a congratulatory tweet when he won the primary. Donald Trump Jr. campaigned for him.

McAdams could have a similar challenge working to keep liberal voters concerned about issues like police reform while reassuring moderates he won’t veer too far left. The race is now considered a toss-up.

“This election is going to be really interesting for the different intersections of race and political issues that are so salient in American politics right now,” Cann said.

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Associated Press writer Michelle L. Price in Las Vegas contributed to this report.