Jim Bradley, the Democratic challenger for the four-year Salt Lake County Commission seat, likens the last few days of his campaign to the final minutes of a close basketball game.
"We're four down in the fourth quarter. It's time to put on the full-court press," Bradley said, referring to one public opinion poll showing him trailing Republican Mike Stewart, a two-term incumbent, by only 4 percentage points.But Stewart, while certainly not ready to claim victory, doesn't think the game is quite as close as Bradley believes. Based on contacts with other pollsters, Stewart thinks his lead is probably closer to 10 points.
What is not disputed, however, is that Bradley has closed the 20-point gap that stood at 51-31 in favor of the incumbent during the first week of October.
Bradley attributes his late rally to steady, hard work at people-to-people campaigning that is paying off in terms of increased name recognition. He also feels voters are finally thinking about their election choices, something they really consider - especially in local government races - only days before they vote.
"People are raising their consciousness toward the election and giving thought to their decisions," the Democrat said. "My thesis in this race has always been that people are not satisfied with county government. People are looking for alternatives, and my name is one they're becoming familiar with."
Stewart disagrees that people are dissatisfied with the county's operations. Salt Lake County is leaner and more efficient that it was eight years ago when he came into office, he said.
"We've literally pruned the size of government by 20 percent while maintaining the level of services and seeing the county's population grow by 104,000 in the past eight years," Stewart said. "We've used energy and creativityto make that happen."
But many county services are so-called "silent services," the kind of agencies and programs that voters may use without even realizing which government entity is offering them, Stewart said. He uses a story to illustrate the point.
At one campaign event, a woman asked Stewart what Salt Lake County does. Whenhe started going down his memorized list of the county's 104 agencies, the womansuddenly got tears in her eyes. Her daughter, a runaway, had spent some time at a county youth home. "I didn't know that (youth home) was you Salt Lake County)people," Stewart quotes the woman.
One reason Stewart may be having a tough race is that local government office holders apparently don't enjoy the same degree of incumbent's advantage on election day that seems to go with many state and national elective offices.
His fellow Republican commissioner, Bart Barker, survived a tough re-election race two years ago, and Stewart cites studies that show as many as two-thirds of all local elected positions contested change hands each election. Those numbers include incumbents who don't seek re-election and who get knocked off in partyprimaries as well as general election losers.
Another factor may be that Bradley has been able to raise and spend significantly more campaign money than Stewart has. The incumbent admits it's been a tough year for him, and all candidates, to raise money.
Financial statements filed the last week in October show Bradley had raised almost $39,000 since March, including $9,000 in loans from himself to his campaign.
More than $8,000 of those loans already have been repaid, according to the report. His campaign expenditures have been about $38,000, and he has $6,000 in remaining campaign debts, some of which are loan repayments the campaign owes to Bradley.
Stewart has raised about $23,000 since April and carried over about $2,400 left from his 1984 campaign. Of that amount, Stewart has spent all but a few dollars and has no outstanding campaign debts
Although both candidates oppose all three tax-limiting initiatives that will appear on the Nov. 8 ballot, Bradley says the clear message the initiatives, whether they pass or not, send to local incumbents is that people don't trust government. He says that is reason enough to elect a new commissioner.
"The people are saying we're not happy with you, we don't trust you and we want to legislatively require you to be more prudent," Bradley said of the tax limit movement.
But Stewart points to the county's triple-A bond rating, the highest given by bond rating services, as evidence of a financially sound county operation. Only 27 of the 3,200 counties in the country have a triple-A rating, and Salt Lake County is the only one west of the Mississippi.
"They don't just pass those ratings out," Stewart said. "It saves us money because the county pays less to borrow. That's Wall Street saying we have a well-managed government."