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Cooke struggles to gain traction in race against governor

Published: Saturday, Oct. 27 2012 4:32 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) 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)

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."

Democrats have been largely focused on the state's most competitive races, for the new 4th District seat in Congress and for Salt Lake County mayor. Both races are seen as too close to call.

State GOP Chairman Thomas Wright said Cooke is making the same mistake Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon made two years ago when he ran against Herbert in a special election for the remainder of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s term.

Corroon lost decisively to Herbert after running what was widely criticized as a negative campaign centered on questions about the connection between the governor's donor list and state contracts.

"It's been disappointing to watch Peter Cooke do nothing to put forward a plan of what he would do as governor and just criticize the governor," Wright said. "I guess they didn't learn their lesson."

He said Cooke would have been better off coming out in favor of a tax increase to fund education.

"At least he would have mobilized his base and energized his base, and gotten some positive traction for an agenda," Wright said. "I have respect for any Democrat who comes up with a message."

This election, Herbert didn't even hit the campaign trail until just over a week ago, when he made a swing through much of the state over several days.

Is that a sign of confidence in the election results?

"Well, I've always said good government and good governing is good campaigning. It makes the messaging a lot easier," Herbert said. "You don't have to go out and campaign for the job of coach if your team is winning."

Herbert said education has always been a priority in his administration. He also supports local control for schools and accountability within the system.

"Evidence suggests that spending money on education is not enough," the governor says on his website.

The governor said while this has "been a much more pleasant race" than he faced in 2010, his campaign was compelled to contact Cooke's about the tone of recent advertising.

"We did what he invited us to do. That's all we have to say about it," Herbert said, noting a meeting he had with Cooke early in the race where keeping campaign advertising was discussed.

Cooke's campaign responded by issuing a press release saying their efforts were "hitting a nerve" with the governor. Herbert stopped short of commenting on how Cooke was running his campaign.

"Campaigns are tough," the governor said. "It's a tough thing for me, too. You do what you think is in the best interest of getting your message out. … I understand, he and his people need to do what they think is the best thing."

Cooke said he doesn't believe his campaign has been successful in focusing attention on the issues he believes are important. He blames a lack of resources for not being able to get his message to voters.

"They don't hear it because I have $350,000. He has $2 million," Cooke said, adding he expects the governor to spend five times as much in advertising.

He started to talk about more money being the answer, but stopped himself mid-sentence. "This is whining. It is what it is, the campaign is. You run against an incumbent, you're going against a huge organization."

Quin Monson, director of the BYU Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Cooke doesn't have a strong enough message to attract the kind of campaign cash he needs to reach voters.

"He's doesn't have the 'silver bullet,' and that keeps him from raising the money that allows him to deliver his message," Monson said. "That's a tough spot to be in. It doesn't mean he's not a good candidate."

Whatever happens Election Day, Cooke said, he's had a fair shot.

"Whatever I've done as a campaign, I'll take that on me. I don't blame others," he said. "I'm frustrated because I just want to do what's good for the state."

TOMORROW: Read about the high-profile race for Salt Lake County mayor, in Monday's Deseret News.

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