SALT LAKE CITY — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Peter Cooke distanced himself Monday from the national party's support for gay marriage and abortion rights, calling his opposition in line with Utah values.
"I am not the typical Democrat," Cooke said with his wife and three of his four children by his side. "I'm an active member of the LDS Church. As you see here, I'm a devoted father and a husband, a strong family man and a believer in common values, in Utah values."
He said he did not agree with the decision by the national Democratic Party's platform committee Saturday to endorse gay marriage, citing The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' teachings on traditional marriage.
Cooke said he supports a statewide law to protect gays and lesbians against discrimination in housing and employment, modeled after an ordinance backed by the LDS Church that has been adopted by several communities.
The Democratic challenger initially said he opposed civil unions and adoptions by gay couples at a press conference Monday, but then suggested he was open to considering civil unions and later, through a spokeswoman, backed adoptions by gay couples.
He was clear, however, in his stand on abortion, saying it should be allowed only in the case of rape, incest or when the life of the mother is at stake. "Life, including unborn life, needs to be cherished and preserved," he said.
Cooke said he was making his stands on gay marriage and abortion clear because he wants the campaign to focus on other issues, such as spending money now used to build roads, on schools to improve public education.
"What Utah Democrats worry about is where our state is going," he said. "What happens is we never get to that point. Most people just write us off right off the bat because they can't get over those two issues," he said of gay marriage and abortion. "I'm trying to get those issues behind us."
Cooke said while some Democrats might not share his views, he is proud to be the party's nominee to face GOP Gov. Gary Herbert and said he planned to vote for President Barack Obama in November.
State Democratic Party Executive Director Matt Lyon said Utah Democrats hold diverse opinions and don't define themselves by what he called "wedge issues." He said the party has not formally taken a position on adding support for gay marriage to the Democrats' national platform.
"I think voters are going to look past the wedge issues. I don’t' think that's what's going to define the election," Lyon said. "In Utah, we're diverse."
Herbert's campaign spokesman, Marty Carpenter, said, "Whether Peter Cooke chooses to support the Democratic Party's platform or not is certainly his choice. The governor has made clear his strong support for traditional marriage and family values."
Equality Utah, which supports equal rights and protections for the state's lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, is not backing away from its endorsement of the Democratic gubernatorial ticket.
The group's executive director, Brandie Balken, said in a statement that she understands Cooke's position "is reflective of the majority of Utahns. While we are not in agreement with this position, as an endorsed candidate he joins us in supporting the policy areas in which we are currently working."
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Cooke's effort to stress his differences with the national party "probably is a wise strategy, if people don't know very much about him other than he's a Democrat."
But Burbank said because Cooke, a retired Army general, is a relative newcomer to politics, it's going to take more than a single press conference to "change people's default position of what a Democrat running for governor is. … It's a very tough place to be in."
He said the state's only Democrat in Congress, Rep. Jim Matheson, who is battling for the state's new 4th District seat, "has spent his whole career" making his differences with the national party clear to voters.
Cooke, who has called for seven gubernatorial debates, also said Herbert was making a "mockery" of the election process by agreeing to participate in just one. Herbert's campaign spokesman said there will be "several" debates.
"We are just in the process of scheduling them now," Carpenter, the governor's campaign spokesman, said. "One has been confirmed, several other debates and joint appearances are under consideration."
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