Democrat Paul Van Dam is an activist who would spend time tinkering with social issues if elected Utah's attorney general, according to Republican incumbent David Wilkinson.

But the criticism, leveled at a debate Thursday sponsored by the Women Lawyers of Utah, had little impact on Van Dam."I couldn't have said it better myself," he said.

Both candidates used the 90-minute debate to continue their efforts to discredit each other.

In recent weeks, Wilkinson has tried to portray his opponent as a liberal from the party of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis who cares more about social issues and the rights of criminals than about being tough on crime.

Van Dam, however, has criticized Wilkinson for stubbornly defending the state's Cable TV Decency Act, for having little experience as a criminal prosecutor and for ignoring the interests of the public.

Thursday's debate at times degenerated into running exchanges between the two candidates. Van Dam attacked Wilkinson for allowing his assistants to approve a recent agreement between state agencies and US WEST Direct. The agreement, which ultimately was rejected by the Public Service Commission, would have allowed the company to keep half of any profits earned above an agreed limit.

Van Dam said the extra money should belong to the public.

But Wilkinson said his assistants should not tell state agencies which deals to reject or accept, as long as the deals are constitutional.

"The client calls the shots," Wilkinson said. "Mr. Van Dam is saying our lawyers should have said to their clients, in effect, `Go to hell.' "

Wilkinson, seeking a third four-year term, said the attorney general should find a balance between serving the public and serving government agencies - with a tilt toward the government agencies.

But Van Dam said Wilkinson should have advised the state to renegotiate the deal.

"It was potentially one of the largest giveaways in history," he said. "If he (Wilkinson) knew what it was about, he should explain why he agreed to it. If not, he was asleep at the switch."

Van Dam said the attorney general should primarily serve the public. He vowed to lead the fight on a number of issues, including protecting the environment.

That led Wilkinson to call Van Dam an activist.

Referring to Van Dam's record as Salt Lake County attorney from 1974-78, Wilkinson said, "He (Van Dam) was proud of the fact he's engaged in social tinkering because he said nobody else would do it."