The race for Utah attorney general has become a contest to see which candidate is the biggest friend of law enforcement.

And, with Republican incumbent David Wilkinson and Democrat Paul Van Dam virtually tied in recent polls, the contest is being waged in less-than-friendly terms, with 13-year-old newspaper clippings dominating the discussion.So far, Van Dam has won support from Salt Lake County Sheriff Pete Hayward and the Utah Alliance of Police Officers, which is a part of a larger union of municipal employees.

Wilkinson, seeking a third term, is endorsed by the Salt Lake Police Association. He also was chosen as one of 22 vice chairpersons on a national coalition of citizens to fight crime, established by Vice President George Bush.

But the question of loyalty to law enforcement is being pushed to the forefront by a Wilkinson radio advertisement that claims Van Dam quadrupled the number of investigations against police officers when he became Salt Lake County attorney in 1975. The ad says Van Dam spent 50 percent of his resources on such matters.

Wilkinson bases the figure on a 1975 newspaper story. But the story, rather than critical of excessive investigations, quotes Van Dam as being frustrated that so much of his time was spent investigating complaints against officers.

The county attorney investigated complaints against Salt Lake police officers in 1975. Van Dam said he did not start the investigations on his own.

"People walk in the door and you listen to them," he said, noting that two of his four investigators were assigned to complaints against officers (hence the 50 percent figure).

Van Dam said his office investigated 12 shootings in four years involving Salt Lake police officers, deciding the officers were justified in each case.

"I am a great supporter of police officers, but I believe they should live within the same laws everyone else does," Van Dam said.

But Wilkinson, who rarely misses an opportunity to raise the police issue in debates, said fewer people would have complained if Van Dam hadn't sent a message early in his term as county attorney that he was more interested in investigating police than in helping crime victims.

Van Dam sent that message by personally prosecuting Jerry Town-send, a sheriff's deputy, Wilkinson said.

Townsend, who still is a deputy, admitted lying to county investigators about incidents leading up to a shooting in October 1974. A jury acquitted Townsend of felony charges and a judge later dismissed other misdemeanor charges, prompting an appeal by Van Dam.

Wilkinson is upset that Van Dam prosecuted the case personally, rather than assigning it to one of his deputies.

"The word was out that here was a top prosecutor who wanted to get cops," Wilkinson said, adding that he would never personally prosecute a police officer.

"I would have someone else in my office do it," he said. "It sends a message out to the community."

Wilkinson said Van Dam's appeal of the misdemeanor turned the prosecution into a persecution.

"Mr. Van Dam said he didn't disagree with the dismissal," Wilkinson said. "He was putting that officer through additional trauma, even though he agreed with the decision of the judge."

Van Dam, however, said he prosecuted the case only because he had started working on it as a deputy county attorney the previous year.

"It was my case. I was the one who did most of the preliminary work on it," Van Dam said. "With case loads being so heavy, I felt I ought to stick with it."

Van Dam said he appealed the misdemeanor dismissal so the decision could be made in a court of rec-ord. Records were not being kept in the city court that made the original decision. The dismissal clarified whether police officers must take responsibility for reports they did not sign, he said.

"I wanted everyone to understand what had to be on the reports," Van Dam said.

Van Dam said Townsend was involved in a shooting shortly after the case was dismissed. Van Dam's office investigated the incident and exonerated Townsend.

"If I had an ax to grind I would've had plenty of opportunities," Van Dam said.

As for endorsements, Wilkinson believes his from the Salt Lake Police Association beats the two for Van Dam.

Salt Lake police officers knew Van Dam as a county attorney, he said.

Van Dam disagrees.

"He (Wilkinson) will have to explain why Pete Hayward endorses me," Van Dam said. "He (Hayward) may be a Democrat, but he will not endorse someone who isn't good in law enforcement."

Van Dam, a former prosecutor and defense attorney, likes to note that Wilkinson lacks experience as a prosecutor. Van Dam would rather the campaign focused on Wilkinson's record, particularly his defense of the Cable TV Decency Act.

Wilkinson says the election is a clear choice between him, a conservative, and Van Dam, a liberal. Wilkinson notes Van Dam is in the same party as presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, who opposes the death penalty and has been criticized for conducting a prison furlough program while governor of Massachusetts.

Van Dam, who favors the death penalty, says he doesn't understand what Wilkinson means.

"There is no such thing as a liberal in law enforcement, because a law has to be enforced," he said. "He ties me to Dukakis, but I think the furlough program sounds like a bad idea. Presidential politics have nothing to do with this race."