Pignanelli: LaVarr has been enjoying the warm weather of Southern California this week and asked me to cover for him. Although tempted to swing a meat ax at his defenseless sacred cows (i.e. Mitt Romney, Utah County, Mike Leavitt), I will utilize the extra space for more important endeavors.

A free exchange of ideas in a competitive environment promotes progress and prosperity. Thus, all Utahns will benefit when Democrats become a relevant factor in the debate and formulation of government policies. But how do Democrats become a significant force in Utah politics? As a Democratic activist for 30 years — a party officer for four years and elected official with a decade of service (and a wife who fulfilled six years in state party office) — I offer the following plan of rehabilitation for the loyal opposition:

• Grasp the facts. According to pre-eminent pollster Dan Jones, 52 percent of Utahns identify themselves as Republicans and 18 percent as Democrats. These statistics serve as a cold slap in the face that whatever Democrats are doing in Utah is not working, and radical changes are necessary.

• Eliminate the anti-Mormon stigma. Bigoted conduct against LDS Church members is a cancer that has crippled my party (and infected too many Salt Lake City residents). Not only is this politically stupid but is contrary to core party principles of human rights. For the last 10 years, a coalition of LDS Democrats and nonmembers has attempted to reverse this trend, only to be rebuffed by party bigwigs and financial contributors with an agenda. The minority party has become a refuge for non-Mormons and former Mormons whose politics are focused on poking at the dominant religion. The purpose of the Democratic Party is to promote important ideas and elect Democrats, not to serve as therapy for Utahns who have issues with the LDS Church and its members. Party officials can root out this insidious disease by consistently exercising a "zero tolerance" policy against any bias based on creed.

• Develop new and big ideas. The Jones-Mascaro legislation (authored by Representatives Pat Jones and Steven Mascaro) is the first bill in living memory that is identified by its sponsors. This unique labeling is a result of its novel concepts of taxation and school funding. Furthermore, it demonstrates (as does the voucher debate) that Utahns are hungry for different approaches in solving problems that affect their lives. Democrats must develop bold proposals, despite annoying traditional constituencies, which capture the imagination of Utahns.

• "It's the perception, stupid." Dan Jones estimates over 50 percent of Utah Democrats are members of the LDS Church and share the same concerns as their neighbors. Yet, because of statements made by national party leaders (not to mention controversial comments by you-know-who at City Hall) and masterful branding by GOP operatives, the perception Utah has of Democrats is mixed at best. Much of the state does not believe we share their core values. Democrats must take the opportunity, when needed, to distance themselves from national personalities in order to demonstrate an independent streak that Utahns love.

• Ban litmus tests on moral issues. For almost 15 years, many Democratic officeholders have been judged not by a commitment to central issues (education, economic fairness, etc.) but as to the purity of votes on hot-button matters. This has led to ridiculous antics and prevented the party from expanding its base. Congressman Jim Matheson has confronted public protests from Democrats at their conventions and has been spit on by abortion-rights activists. Party leaders need to articulate that civil rights is a key feature of Democratic politics, but some subjects (abortion, same-sex marriage) are the province of personal morality and will not be utilized in developing platforms and selecting candidates.

• Be creative and humorous. Love or hate him, politicos admit that former party chairman Randy Horiuchi was brilliant in utilizing funny and outlandish methods to highlight GOP problems and Democratic perspectives. His success with this strategy was incredible — doubling numbers in the Legislature and gains in statewide elections. For example, Democrats should occasionally remind Utahns that regardless of secular humanists in their party, the national GOP is burdened with right-wing fundamentalists who believe Mormons are cultish and not Christians. The public enjoys having fun at the expense of right- or left-wing extremists.

• Know your strengths. Democrats have made gains along the east bench of the Wasatch Front with female legislative candidates (and Matheson) who attract the support of Republican families. By creating a comfort level for Republicans through focusing on core issues and constituent affairs, these Democrats have played upon the fears that the imbalance of power is counterproductive and promotes extremism.

• Look to Britain. Prime Minister Tony Blair resuscitated the Labor Party from political death by adjusting its focus toward issues vexing British families and jettisoning narrow special interest burdens. He articulated that left- and right-wing elements were stagnant, and leadership could only come from the middle or the "Third Way." From their current weakness, Utah Democrats can rebound and provide a Third Way alternative in policy deliberations.

• Every member a missionary. Neither political party has a monopoly on wisdom or foolishness. Democrats should refrain from malicious partisan jabs (although good-natured jokes are always welcome), express respect for their neighbor's opinion while explaining what Democrats have to offer. While this may not result in wholesale conversion, it may convince some Republicans to consider Democratic alternatives.

Good government is dependent upon a vigorous and healthy competition of ideas. Thus, Utah Democrats have a moral obligation to restore the strength and appeal of their party across the state. I am optimistic we will rise to the occasion.

Republican LaVarr Webb was policy deputy to Gov. Mike Leavitt and Deseret News managing editor. He now is a political consultant and lobbyist. E-mail: lwebb@exoro.com. Democrat Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser. A former candidate for Salt Lake City mayor, Pignanelli served 10 years in the Utah House of Representatives, six years as House minority leader. Pignanelli's spouse, D'Arcy Dixon Pignanelli, is executive director of the state Department of Administrative Services in the Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. administration. E-mail: frankp@xmission.com.