Utah's gubernatorial campaign takes sharp turns to negative territory

Published: Saturday, Oct. 23 2010 10:52 p.m. MDT

Gov. Gary Herbert, left, speaks during the Decision 2010 Debate with Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon at the University of Utah.

Michael Brandy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — This year's special gubernatorial election wasn't supposed to be controversial, especially after GOP Gov. Gary Herbert emerged with no serious intra-party challenge.

Then, the Democrat in this unusual off-year race, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, began raising increasingly negative questions about whether contributions to the governor's campaign influenced the awarding of state contracts

That tone has likely hurt Corroon. The latest Deseret News/KSL-TV poll found Herbert actually had increased his lead slightly, to 25 points, since Corroon's commercials sharply criticizing the governor started airing.

But University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Corroon had to do something to attract attention to himself as a Democrat running in GOP-dominated Utah, especially in a year that promises to be big for Republicans nationally.

"The only thing you can do to change the momentum of that race is to raise some serious questions," Burbank said. "If you're really going to run and be competitive, you can't run a campaign that says, 'Gee, my opponent is a nice guy.' "

Of course, Burbank said, candidates who resort to negative campaigning usually lose because they haven't made an effective case for themselves. "Basically, we're just seeing an attack," he said.

Still, Burbank said, Corroon may be trying to establish himself as a tough candidate in this race in anticipation of running stronger in the next gubernatorial election, in just two years.

"It makes more sense, because this is a special election," he said. "You can say let's make a real effort now and see how things work out. If nothing else, we should be positioned for next time."

Herbert is expected to run again in 2012, although some of his fellow Republicans have suggested privately that he may be more vulnerable after this race to a challenge from within the GOP.

A new state constitutional amendment required an election to be held for the remaining two years of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s term instead of waiting until the next regular gubernatorial election in 2012.

That means Herbert, already elected twice as Huntsman's lieutenant governor, is running on a record of just over a year as the state's chief executive. For his Democratic challenger, the race started two years sooner than expected.

When Herbert took over the office in August 2009 after Huntsman resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China, he began raising money to discourage fellow Republicans from getting in the race.

Thanks in large part to a record $1 million in contributions to his first annual Governor's Gala fundraiser last year, Herbert avoided any real competition for his party's nomination.

Utah Democrats, meanwhile, viewed Corroon as their best hope in years after losing every election for governor since Scott Matheson won a second term in 1980.

Corroon, though, was largely unknown off the Wasatch Front. So he, too, had to focus on fundraising to pay for a campaign intended to introduce him to the rest of the state.

Both campaigns predicted early on that the race would be costly but civil, downplaying the possibility of any real friction between Herbert and Corroon.

The campaigns promised a lot of debate and dialogue on the issues in what Corroon's campaign manager, Donald Dunn, said in April would be "a professional, above-the-board, gentlemen's campaign."

And that's how it started. Corroon held a series of news conferences since the beginning of the year, outlining his positions on a range of issues, including ethics and education. Herbert stayed in the news by performing his duties as governor.

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