Whether Salt Lake County Commissioner Dave Watson continues his re-election quest or steps aside is completely his decision, Utah Democratic leaders say.

But if he drops out - and many believe he now has no chance of beating Republican Tom Shimizu - Salt Lake County Democrats believe they won't be left with B.T. Price as their only candidate.Many interpret Utah's restrictive candidate law to mean that Price, the only other Democrat to file for the two-year commission spot, would be the only Democrat left. Price, who calls himself the mayor of west Second South, is unacceptable to mainstream Democrats.

But Watson could be certified as mentally disabled, and thus be legally replaced in the race.

County Democratic leaders are reluctant to talk about Watson's options, since they have had only preliminary meetings with him following his arrest for investigation of drunken driving and possession of a controlled substance. Leaders were to meet with Watson Tuesday or Wednesday in lengthy sessions to discuss his political future.

Watson's attorney, Ronald Yengich, asked the press and public on Monday to keep an open mind about Watson's arrest, hinting that there may well be legal problems for the county in charging Watson with the controlled substance violation.

But regardless of whether Watson is charged with cocaine possession or not, most political experts believe Watson can't seek re-election this year. He would lose, perhaps damaging other Democratic candidates in the painful process.

County Democratic Treasurer Frank Pignanelli, who is also an attorney, said Monday that he and other county officials are studying the state's election law to find a way to replace Watson in the race.

The law is very restrictive concerning candidate replacement. The only reasons a candidate can be replaced are death, physical or mental disability, or a mistake in filing.

A different part of the code says a candidate must also be a resident in the jurisdiction in which he is running.

Given the strict law, Democrats seem to have only two ways to replace Watson:

-He could be nominated by Saturday's Salt Lake County Democratic Convention as the party's choice and then move out of the county, violating the residency requirement.

-Or he could get a medical doctor to certify that he is suffering from a mental disability that won't allow him to run. Pignanelli believes that by using the mental-disability option, Watson could be replaced before Saturday's convention or after he is the official nominee.

"We will follow the letter of the law," Pignanelli promised. "Hey, we have a real problem here (with the law), but we believe we do have some options should Dave decide not to continue his candidacy."