Brigham Young University law students waiting for the leading candidate to emerge in the state attorney general's race may have to search past the candidate debate held on campus Thursday.

After listening to Attorney General David Wilkinson and his opponent, Paul Van Dam, it became apparent why they are running neck and neck. Neither one seemed to be the favored candidate, as students expressed support for both men.Wilkinson and Van Dam addressed topics ranging from cable TV to prison furloughs to the state thrift controversy, and each managed to throw a few shots at the other.

Van Dam, the Democratic candidate, said he is qualified for the job because Wilkinson does not have enough experience fighting criminal cases. Republican Wilkinson said Van Dam does not have enough experience prosecuting civil cases.

Both countered with examples of criminal and civil cases they have handled in the past.

Wilkinson said the most important case the attorney general's office is working on right now is on the separation of powers and whether employees of the executive branch can simultaneously serve in the legislature.

"My opponent has accepted a contribution of $37,000 from the state public employees union," he said, predicting that if Van Dam is elected "he will drop the suit immediately."

Van Dam said the contribution came to him because "the people that know him (Wilkinson) the best have given me the most - not because I will dismiss the lawsuit of separation of powers. The Legislature and governor are not very happy with him."

Wilkinson said the past several years in state government have been hard times, but "if the Legislature and governor are so down on me why do they pass bills, and why did they give me a salary increase I didn't ask for? If everybody loved me, I'd really worry about the job I'm doing."

He said the highest duty the attorney general can render is to defend the Constitution. But Van Dam said that when Wilkinson appealed the decision to strike 1983 cable TV legislation regulating sexual content in programs, he was giving support to a law that was "clearly unconstitutional."

Wilkinson appealed the decision to the circuit court, district court and up to the Supreme Court.

"If I did not appeal it, it would have been a case of public malpractice," Wilkinson said. "That was on the cutting edge of the law."

Van Dam and Wilkinson also talked about what they would do to prevent consumer fraud.

"We've made substantial strides in fighting it," Wilkinson said. "We have brought more civil and criminal violations forward in the past years than ever before."

But Van Dam said, "There is basically one attorney assigned to fight securities fraud and they are turning over one a year. I can't understand why they don't stay on longer than that."

Wilkinson called the race a typical conservative-vs.-liberal race, but Van Dam said, "If I'm liberal, heaven help the liberals. He's (Wilkinson) has been there eight years now. He had his opportunity. Now give me a chance."