Dave Watson returned to his seat Monday as Salt Lake County commissioner, saying his political future will be decided in coming days.

But several prominent Democrats say the 32-year-old commissioner's once-promising political career is over.Watson, who already faced a stiff re-election challenge from Republican M. Tom Shimizu, was arrested on suspicion of drunken driving and possession of cocaine early Sunday morning.

Watson was a rising star in Democratic politics, the first Democratic Salt Lake County commissioner in the 1980s. He was the shining example of the new breed of Democratic candidates: tough, articulate and hard working.

While longtime Democrats Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah; Gunn McKay and Ted Wilson were seeking higher state office, Watson was the first young Democrat to win a major post, leading the new bunch of Democrats in their 20s and 30s who had won seats in the Utah House.

Of the new breed, he is the first to fall through scandal.

With a quivering voice, Watson apologized to supporters during a Monday morning news conference and later received polite applause from county employees after a similar speech at the start of a routine meeting.

"Those of you who have covered me will notice two character traits that you have never seen from me before - total humility and shame," he told reporters at the news conference. He also apologized to his wife, Margo, who was seated by his side and who vowed to support him.

The humiliation to his wife "is the most painful aspect of this entire process," he said.

Watson's attorney, Ron Yengich, advised him not to comment on the case itself.

"It hurts me, more than anything, not to be able to open up and bare my soul," Watson said.

But while Watson and Yengich talked about what the future holds, Democratic leaders think Watson's problems may well be too big for voters to swallow.

"This is a very sad thing for Dave and his family," said Wilson, who is running for governor this year. "I feel very badly for them. But even if he were found innocent of all charges in a trial before the election, when you are arrested for a thing like this the public perception is one of guilt."

However, Wilson warned that Democratic leaders shouldn't attempt to engineer Watson's departure from his re-election race.

"We didn't give Allan Howe much tether in 1976, and he resented it and wouldn't go (quit his race). Dave hasn't asked for my counsel. But if he does I have to say, you can't get away from such a thing (the arrest). You are on the defensive the whole race. The best way: to the extent you are guilty admit it."

Wilson and Democratic Party Chairman Randy Horiuchi, both friends of Watson, are concerned about Watson the person. But they are also concerned about the upcoming election - one in which they believe Democrats will do well.

"Of course, this kind of thing has an impact on all (Democratic) races, especially if it becomes an Allan Howe type of situation," said Wilson.

Howe was the Democratic 2nd District congressman running for re-election in 1976 when, on the night of the Salt Lake County Democratic Convention, he was arrested for soliciting sex from a police undercover decoy.

In a three-way race, Republican Dan Marriott beat the two Democrats, who split their votes. Sen. Or-rin Hatch, R-Utah, also beat longtime Democratic Sen. Frank Moss that year. Wilson said Moss blames Howe for his defeat. "(Howe) haunted Ted Moss throughout his campaign," said Wilson.

Watson was going to have a difficult time at re-election even without his arrest. The latest Dan Jones & Associates poll conducted for the Deseret News and KSL-TV on April 19, well before Watson's arrest, shows that Republican Tom Shimizu leads Watson 47-34 percent.

After the news conference, Watson retreated into his office for a closed-door session with fellow commissioners Bart Barker and Mike Stewart. The three men and their staff members embraced.