Gov. Norm Bangerter and his Democratic challenger Ted Wilson are going around the state these days debating. In some cases, independent candidate Merrill Cook joins them.
The debates and joint appearances have taken a bitter turn the past month. Bangerter has been closing on Wilson in the polls, and that, in part, is the reason the governor is taking the fight to Wilson.Wilson leads Bangerter by 13 points in the polls, Deseret News/KSL TV pollster Dan Jones & Associates finds. Just a month ago, Wilson led by 19 points.
In 1982, I attended all of U.S. Senate debates between Wilson and Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah. Wilson was way behind in that race. And he tried to take the fight to Hatch to make up some ground.
But those debates weren't as stabbing as the early debates between Wilson and Bangerter this year, and we've still got seven weeks left in the campaign.
It's political numbers game, of course, that leads to the recent rancor.
In 1982, Wilson was the minority party candidate challenging a strong Republican in a overwhelmingly Republican state. Hatch was ahead and would likely hold on to his Republican voters. In short, Wilson knew he had an uphill fight and couldn't win by telling GOP voters that Hatch was worthless.
Just the opposite is true this year.
Almost a third of the Republican voters, according to Jones' polls, say they favor Wilson, who is still the Democrat and still in the minority party in Utah.
Bangerter knows he must get those voters back. And campaign advisors say the way to do it is to make Wilson look bad.
The general thinking is this: Bangerter, who has a poor job performance rating by citizens, isn't going to win over enough dissatisfied Republicans by saying he's done a good job; that is, by touting his own accomplishments. Polling shows those Republicans won't buy that.
He's only going to get those Republicans if he can convince them that Wilson is worse than he is. In other words, it's better to vote for the lesser of two evils, especially if that lesser evil is a Republican like you.
There's a danger in this tactic. If Bangerter appears to be too shrill, or goes too far in his criticism of Wilson, those Republicans will be even more turned off by the governor. After all, Bangerter is courting unhappy Republicans who aren't too fond of him to start with.
In the debates, the tactics have turned into name-calling - polite, perhaps, compared to politics in other states, but name-calling just the same. Some of the stuff seen so far is pretty tough by Utah standards.
Bangerter has said that Wilson is "full of hype" and "pure baloney." He's called Wilson a quitter for leaving the Salt Lake City mayoral post before his third term was finished. He says Wilson isn't telling the truth about job-creation statistics.
Wilson says Bangerter isn't acting like the statesman a governor should be. He says Bangerter has made bad decisions the past three years and doesn't deserve another four.
Bangerter admitted this week, during yet another debate, that he doesn't like taking out after Wilson.
Sources close to the Bangerter campaign have said off and on since last year that a real concern of theirs is whether the governor would be tough enough in dealing with Wilson. According to one aide, Bangerter has said that he would do only those things he felt comfortable with - wouldn't ruin his public or private reputation just to win another term.
But in the heat of a campaign the competitive nature tends to win out. Objectivity about one's own actions and those of the challenger become warped.
Bangerter is moving up in the polls. Traditional Republicans who said two months ago they supported Wilson have started to defect. In short, Bangerter's campaign plan, complete with the tough attacks on Wilson, seems to be working.
Wilson campaign staffers think Bangerter has thrown just about everything he can at Wilson. Maybe not. There's still more debates ahead.