Cooke struggles to gain traction in race against governor

Published: Saturday, Oct. 27 2012 4:00 p.m. MDT

Candidate for governor Peter Cooke talks with an attendee at the state Democratic convention in Salt Lake City Saturday, April 21, 2012.

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Halfway through an interview, Democratic candidate Peter Cooke was clearly getting frustrated talking about what's not working in his bid to unseat GOP Gov. Gary Herbert.

"We're not going anywhere with this discussion," the retired Army general told a reporter after trying repeatedly to explain why his campaign has pointed out plenty of problems but offered few solutions.

It's a strategy that has party leaders and political observers shaking their heads, since taking on an incumbent requires a challenger to deliver details of how his or her administration would differ.

But Cooke has not provided those details on a number of issues he's raised, ranging from the need to better protect Hill Air Force Base from budget cuts to raising the more than $2 billion he said is needed over the next four years for public schools.

He insists that's not his job as a candidate, even though he said he's "the one who continually gets hit on, ‘What's your plan'" when he tells voters Herbert has no long-term proposal for public education funding in place.

"I'm not doing any alibi. I'm just saying I don't have the capabilities or the staff to make a legitimate" proposal, the candidate said, pledging to come up with a plan within his first 120 days in office to move state spending on education from 50th in the nation to 30th.

Until then, Cooke is unable to say what state programs he would cut to pay for the additional education spending or whether a tax increase might be merited, although he said he'd support "whatever it would take to make up the gap."

Utah advertising executive Tom Love, who is not involved in this year's race for governor, said that's not enough to win over the electorate.

"There are ways to put a plan together," Love said. "It's hard to ask people for their vote without specifics."

Love said Cooke has had a difficult time gaining traction with voters, in part because he's not doing what he must to make his case.

"There's no definitive plan of what he would do differently," he said. "I think that's a necessity."

Education could have been a strong issue for Cooke as a Democratic challenger, Love said, because Republicans are reluctant to take Utahns up on the willingness they've expressed to pay more in taxes to improve schools.

University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank cited similar issues with Cooke's campaign.

"The problem I think that Cooke has in a way is he doesn't have enough experience as a politician to recognize that to really score that point, part of what he has to do is lay out an alternative," Burbank said.

It can be tricky, he said, for challengers to come up with proposals that don't set them up for a barrage of criticism.

"It's a fine line," Burbank said.

The difficulty Cooke is having coming up with solutions points to the problems Democrats have in fielding skilled candidates in a state dominated by the GOP.

"On paper, he is a very exciting candidate," Burbank said of Cooke, whose campaign has featured his military and business background as well as his Mormon faith. "But it does take a lot to execute a statewide campaign."

State Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis said the party does need to "work a lot harder at helping our candidates get ready for the onslaught that naturally should follow" once they decide to run.

"It's not an excuse. Peter has done extraordinarily well at creating a vision for Utah," Dabakis said. "It's difficult to come down with huge plans the way an incumbent can who has hundreds of people who can work on it."

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