SANDY — It took much of Saturday, but members of the GOP State Central Committee finally chose three candidates to replace former Attorney General John Swallow — Sean Reyes, Robert Smith and Brian Tarbet.
The final choice is up to Gov. Gary Herbert, who praised all seven candidates in the race. Utah voters will elect an attorney general in November 2014 to fill what will be the remaining two years of Swallow's term.
The governor said he hopes to name his pick before the Christmas holiday. Herbert said he will interview the three candidates before deciding whether he wants what's been called a caretaker in the office or someone who will run again next year.
"I understand the arguments on both sides. I want to hear what they have to say about it," the governor said. "I don't like the idea of a caretaker from the standpoint of somebody who's just going to be there and tread water."
Instead, Herbert said he wants somebody to "get in there, have a review top to bottom, and get the attorney general's office back on solid footing, restore confidence and move ahead whether they're going to run again for office in 2014 or not."
Only Tarbet, named by the governor as the acting attorney general after Swallow announced last month he was stepping down, committed not to running in next year's election.
Herbert said Saturday he has a "lot of confidence" in Tarbet's leadership ability.
Tarbet said he planned to retire from a career in public service that included serving as adjutant general of the Utah National Guard before retiring in 2012 and joining the attorney general's office as general counsel in January.
"There is another way. Let's do first things first. No campaign means no distractions," Tarbet said, asking if Republicans really want a version of President Barack Obama's "permanent campaign."
Bret Rawson urged the party members not to put in a caretaker.
"Put in a campaigner, someone who wants it bad enough to fight for it," he said before being losing to Tarbet by just five votes in the fifth and final round of voting.
Retired Utah Supreme Court Justice Michael Wilkins had said he would not run next November but reversed his stand Saturday, announcing that if the party had a "genuine desire" to see him on the ballot, "I will listen."
Wilkins withdrew his candidacy and urged support for Tarbet after finishing next to last in the second round of voting.
Reyes was the first candidate selected by the more than 150 Republicans gathered at the Sandy campus of Salt Lake Community College, winning a majority of votes in the first round of balloting.
The voting continued until two more candidates won a majority of the votes cast in a round of balloting. It took until the third round to choose Smith.
Reyes, who lost to Swallow in the 2012 GOP primary election, told the party leaders who make up the central committee that he has already been vetted in a statewide race. He also committed to keeping the office long term.
"You earn trust and respect by leading, and not just for one year," said Reyes, a founder and general counsel of Accelerate Ventures, a venture capital firm with offices in Utah and Oregon.
Smith, the managing director of the BYU International Center for Law and Religion Studies, was joined by his family in the front of the room as he pledged to be proactive on reclaiming control of federal lands.
He warned that basic liberties are under attack and said he would defend Utahns against "the unreasonable demands of Obamacare," challenges to traditional marriage, and other issues by standing "on correct principles."
All of the candidates spoke of the need to make changes in the office, which Swallow assumed in early January, shortly before allegations of influence peddling and other wrongdoing began to surface.
Michelle Mumford used the strongest language to describe what was wrong with the office under Swallow, including comparing his recorded conversation about a "burner" phone to "drug dealers trying to avoid a wiretap."
Mumford, the assistant dean of admissions at the BYU law school, also addressed her husband, attorney Marcus Mumford, representing one of Swallow's chief accusers, imprisoned businessman Marc Jenson.
"You should know I'm my own woman," she said.
Rawson, a Fraternal Order of Police attorney who has worked with Marcus Mumford on the Jenson case, said he had fought against corruption.
"Fighting against evil does not connect you to evil," he said without being more specific.
Former Iron County Attorney Scott Burns, the first candidate eliminated after he finished last in the first two rounds of balloting, pledged to work with the winner.
"I am a good Republican," he said.
Burns ran unsuccessfully against the state's last Democratic attorney general, Jan Graham. Until recently, he worked in Washington, D.C., raising questions about whether he met the residency requirement to serve as Utah attorney general.
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