A three-way campaign with no incumbent running means a wide-open race for the two-year seat on the Salt Lake County Commission - just like in 1986, right?

Apparently not. The 1988 two-year race, according to public opinion polls, has been all but over since summer.Republican M. Tom Shimizu, who held the seat for five years before giving it up in 1986 to run unsuccessfully for Congress, has had a towering lead over rivals Dale Gardiner, a Democrat, and Libertarian Gary Root since the pollsters began tracking the campaign almost five months ago.

A recent poll by Dan Jones & Associates showed Shimizu leading Gardiner by 55 percent to 32 percent. Less than 1 percent of those polled favored Root.

This race has to have Democrats and political observers wondering about what might have been. Democrat Dave Watson beat Republican Merrill Cook, now an independent candidate for governor, for this seat in a tough 1986 campaign when Shimizu did not seek re-election.

Watson was a flamboyant and effective commissioner until his arrest last May on charges of drunken driving and cocaine possession. He later pleaded guilty to reduced charges.

In a controversial move that allowed him to withdraw from a re-election bid and allowed the party to replace him as a candidate, Watson presented a letter from his physician saying that a campaign would put Watson under too much stress.

The Democrats chose Gardiner to replace Watson as their candidate, and county Public Works Director John Hiskey, another Democrat, was appointed to the two-year commission seat in September to fill out the term after Watson's resignationfrom office.

Gardiner, the mayor of Riverton for the past seven years, believes there are really no issues in this campaign that make a difference to voters. Shimizu's consistent 20-plus point lead in the polls is directly attributable to his high name identification, something he gained by spending tens of thousands of dollars on his bid for Congress two years ago, Gardiner says.

Shimizu says high name identification by voters and his catchy campaign slogans certainly help him. But he insists voters pay attention to issues and support him because they like his message and his record as a commissioner.

Root, an electrical engineer making his first run at public office, says there is really only one issue at stake, as illustrated by the three tax-limitation initiatives on the Nov. 8 ballot _ do voters want lower taxes and smaller government?

If the answer is yes, then Libertarian Party candidates are the only logical choice because neither of the major parties are prepared to deliver those things, Root says.

Despite Gardiner's assertion that issues don't seem to make any difference in this campaign, he is willing to talk about some he believes important.

"I'm a Democrat with a record of not raising taxes in seven years as mayor," Gardiner said. "Tom Shimizu is a Republican who raised taxes in four of the six county budgets he worked on. He tried to raise taxes in a fifth year, but Dave Watson came into office and cut spending to avoid that Shimizu tax increase."> Shimizu's record on taxes should be an issue, Gardiner said. But when he tries to raise that issue, people tend to dismiss it as campaign rhetoric. He encourages voters to look up Shimizu's record themselves, but few if any do.

"The issues are competence and leadership," the mayor said. "There's no polite way to say this, but in the five years Tom Shimizu was a commissioner no one heard an original idea from him. He parrots (Republican commissioner) Mike Stewart. He even steals my ideas."

Gardiner is a strong proponent of shared-service agreements between government entities to reduce duplicate spending of tax dollars while increasing service levels. During his term as mayor, Riverton through such agreements got a new fire station, a new swimming pool and new library _ all without a tax increase. He would pursue the same philosophy as a commissioner.

Root joined the Libertarian Party 12 years ago because he felt neither of the major parties was performing the functions political parties should serve. He calls the tax initiatives the issue of the year and supports all three.

"Libertarians believe in smaller government, in less government involvement in our lives," he said. "We see passage of the initiatives as the beginning, not the achievement, of that goal. Libertarians not only believe in cutting government spending, but cutting deeply. So if voters want to see spending cut, it's to their advantage to vote for someone who's looked at deep cuts."

Libertarian ideals have broad appeal to local voters, but many are reluctant to support the party's candidates because they feel their vote would be wasted on a candidate who cannot win, Root said.

"Is that the reason we vote _ to say we backed the guy who won?" Root asked. "If so, then all anyone needs to do is check the opinion polls before voting.The only way to really make your vote count is to vote your beliefs. If someonevotes Libertarian, they are voting for an idea, a principle. The major parties have become only vehicles to elect candidates."

As a commissioner, Root would work to gradually privatize nearly all county services, including some functions of law enforcement. He would start with municipal services, specifically garbage collection.

Unless voters have heard Shimizu speak at one of the many meet-the-candidate events, they're probably acquainted only with his campaign slogans.

"Do the Shimizu," his billboard advertisements urge voters. "I'm part of the Shimizu crew," say T-shirts worn by his supporters _ a word play on the candidate's crewcut hair style.

But Shimizu insists his campaign has substance as well as style, and he denies Gardiner's assertion that he only borrows ideas from others. He does, however,join Gardiner in support of more shared services with cities, a move he says would save the county money.

Shimizu says he has the vision to help prepare Salt Lake County for the 21st century and to help the county "become the vibrant community we need."

Part of that vision is to improve local transportation and other infrastructure systems, increase economic development efforts and provide further encouragement of the cultural arts, Shimizu said, at the same time keeping taxes down and continuing efficiency in government.

"We should look at consolidation of some agencies to make the county organization leaner," he said. "We need to learn from the private sector. If we see they can do services more economically than the county can, we should look at thepossibility of more privatization. But we shouldn't disrupt services just to make them more efficient."