Salt Lake City, UT – Gary Herbert became Utah's governor last year when Jon Huntsman Jr. resigned to serve as U.S. ambassador to China. Utah's constitution requires him to run in a mid-term election to fill out the remainder of Huntsman's term. Herbert is a Republican. His Democratic challenger is Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon.
Mayor Corroon held a news conference in August to outline his education plan, one of six developed by his campaign on issues from quality of life to state managment. He was hoping they'd get more attention than they have. But the Corroon campaign was also responsible a series of ads implying that Governor Gary Herbert had been doing favors for state contractors who made big political contributions.
br>Governor Herbert has been asked to respond to the Corroon allegations in almost every appearance he's made since the issue first came up. On KUER's Radio West, Herbert said, "Well, it's offensive . . . and it's something that Mayor Corroon just throws around just kind of with total disregard for the people he's impugning their integrity. It's not just me."
Herbert doesn't dispute the assertion meetings with big contributors took place, but he says they did not influence the I-15 bid or any other action of state government. And Herbert says he knows why this has become such a central conflict in this race. "I think it's unfortunate that for political purpose, that it's almost like we can't win on the issues, so let's just go negative."
It's become clear that attacking Herbert on campaign financing was central to Corroon's strategy early on. Donald Dunn is Corroon's campaign manager. In an interview with KUER, he said, "Then, as we did our research and we saw this pattern, and we saw these meetings, and we saw the donations and we saw some sort of special favor or incentive or state contract, it was very clear that there were no distinct lines in Gary Herbert's administration, that they had very blurry lines of what's appropriate, what's not appropriate. It's almost a sense of entitlement, and that was something that we made recommendations as a campaign to Peter and that he wanted to show a big difference."
The strategy succeeded in drawing a distinction between the candidates. But it's also kept other important issues out of the headlines.
At the Emery County Fair, only a few people waiting in line for the lamb fry knew that the guy serving up the chops was running for governor. Connecting to voters outside Salt Lake County has been one of Corroon's challenges in this campaign. Among the issues he's talked about with rural voters is how to handle wilderness, energy development and other uses on Utah's vast areas of public land.
" The governor can be a convener," Corroon said. "The idea is to bring everybody together, get everybody's viewpoint. At the end of the day, if you get everybody around the table, they'll usually compromise and come up with something that may not be everybody's favorite decision, but at the end of the day they can live with it, and I think the process is equally important as the outcome.
When the candidates met for a conference on rural issues at Southern Utah University, Gary Herbert said that's just what he's done with his Balanced Resource Council. "If I'd have said to you all a year ago, when we had the last summit here, Guess what we're gonna do here in Utah. We're gonna bring SUWA, and we're gonna bring Bill Barrett Corporation, a large natural gas developer, and we're gonna come together in a pristine area in Carbon County, Desolation Canyon, and we're gonna have an agreement signed off by the Interior Department. There'll be no litigation, we're just gonna go with a settlement and we'll have a win-win and live happily ever after, you would have called me crazy."
Governor Herbert likes to point to the state's triple-A bond rating and the praise it's received as the best-managed state in the nation. Mayor Corroon says the state has been balancing its budget with the help of accounting gimmicks and one-time money.
Herbert points to the companies that have recently announced plans to move to or expand in Utah. Corroon says the state is giving up too much in tax incentives for big corporations.
Corroon says renewable energy and green jobs are a key to Utah's future. "Renewable energies are the computer industry of 30 years ago. The technology is changing rapidly. We can create thousands of jobs especially in our rural areas."
"I don't think the public cares what kind of jobs, whether they're green, brown or red," Herbert counters. "They just want jobs. And we're doing everything we can, in fact, to create opportunity in the private sector to create jobs. In fact, Utah has been listed as the state coming out of the economic downturn Number One of all 50 states."
Months of intense campaigning, debates, TV ads and dueling press conferences haven't narrowed the gap. A recent Dan Jones poll published in the Deseret News showed Herbert with a 58 to 33 percent lead over Corroon.
Voters like Hal Armstrong of West Jordan have been the target of all those messages. He's voted Republican in the past, but says he's leaning toward Corroon. Still, he hasn't found the mayor's campaign ads persuasive. "At first, I was a little bit more negatively disposed toward Governor Herbert because of my perception that he's aligned with the more conservative factions of the Republican party in Utah, although as he has held office and the things that he's done, that perception has lessened a bit. But through the campaign, I think that I've found him a little bit more sympathetic. I guess the campaign's kinda had the opposite effect of what it was intended to do."
The Corroon campaign has dropped the ads attacking Herbert for the last two weeks before the election, something they say they'd planned to do all along. In the meantime, both candidates are getting out on the road in rural Utah, hoping to change just a few more minds.