Riverton Mayor Dale Gardiner was picked Saturday by Salt Lake County Democrats to replace Commissioner Dave Watson in the two-year County Commission race - but Gardiner had little time to celebrate.Gardiner, the Democratic hierarchy's hand-picked successor, barely beat a last-minute challenge by Brenda Hancock, 160 votes to 136.

Then, Republican leaders, meeting in their own Salt Lake County Convention, said they don't think the Democrats followed state law in replacing Watson. They will request an opinion on that from the county attorney's office on Monday - and said they may challenge Gardiner's nomination in court thereafter.

Gardiner enters a difficult race, battling Republican M. Tom Shimizu, who was a commissioner for five years before dropping out to run unsuccessfully for Congress. Watson, the incumbent, already trailed Shimizu in opinion polls before being forced to drop out after an arrest for suspicion of drunken driving and possession of cocaine.

The county's Central Committee met before the convention convened in Cottonwood High School and selected Gardiner to replace Watson. Then, hours later during the convention itself, Gardiner eliminated the other Democrat in the race, B.T. Price, by getting more than 70 percent of the overall convention delegate vote. In less than three hours, Gardiner announced as a candidate and was picked as the Democratic nominee.

Democrats believe they legally replaced Watson because he dropped out of the race late Friday, claiming he has a mental disability. The claim, certified by a doctor at Wasatch Canyons Hospital, satisfies one of the requirements in state law that allows candidates to be replaced after the filing deadline.

Republicans wonder if the strict medical requirement was really met.

For example, County Commission Chairman Bart Barker noted that State Democratic Party Chairman Randy Horiuchi is on Wasatch Canyons Hospital's volunteer board of trustees.

Even if Watson has a mental disability, State GOP Chairman Craig Moody said he still doesn't think the law allows Democrats to replace Watson because they already had another candidate - Price, a man who says he believes in polygamy and reincarnation.

Moody said, "I think they either have Price as a candidate, or we will challenge it in court."

Dixon Hindley, the Republican county clerk who prepares the ballot, said he isn't convinced, either, that Democrats followed the law, and he will seek an opinion Monday from Gavin J. Anderson, the deputy county attorney assigned to work with his office.

"The Democrats can nominate who they want in their convention, but that doesn't mean we have to put him on the ballot," Hindley said.

Shimizu said, "I think Dale Gardiner is a fine fellow and will run a tough campaign, but I don't approve of what they're doing. I think it's illegal." He said Republicans plan to meet early next week to decide whether to challenge Gardiner's candidacy in court.

Of note, Shimizu spent much of his time at the Republican convention Saturday trying to convince delegates that his race isn't over, and that he still faces a tough fight. "I need to run scared and work hard," he said.

Gardiner is best known for his unsuccessful race for Congress against Rep. Howard Nielsen, R-Utah, in 1986. He has been Riverton mayor since 1981 and considered running for Utah attorney general this year. He said he was approached by party leaders Friday afternoon and asked to be Watson's successor.

Democratic leaders hoped Gardiner would be the unanimous choice. But state Sen. Francis Farley, D-Salt Lake, asked Hancock Friday night to consider the race. "We couldn't get her to accept until this morning," Farley said.

Hancock made a stirring speech before the county party's Central Committee and, even though Gardiner was touted by party leaders, barely lost in a close committee vote, 160-136.

Some party members hoped Hancock would draw votes from women and add a new dimension to the race.

Price was deliberately overlooked by party members. A perennial candidate for office, Price was seen by many as unfit to represent the party.

"I'm going to need a blood transfusion after they (party leaders) cut my throat," Price said. When Price gave his speech at the convention, some in the back of the auditorium couldn't hear him and yelled, "We can't hear you." But other Democrats shouted back, "Who wants to?"

Acting as if he was slightly caught off-guard by his sudden candidacy, Gardiner said he would focus on the need for strong leadership on the commission. He said county government needs to be modified, but it was unclear whether he would push to abolish the commission form of government, as Watson had.

"In life you are either a leader, a follower or should get out of the way," Gardiner told the Democrats. "Tom Shimizu has never been a leader, always a follower, and now should get out of the way."

Gardiner acknowledged the race will be difficult.

"I think we can get our act together," he said, adding he thinks Shimizu runs campaigns based on little more than cute campaign slogans.

Democrats had wanted John Hiskey, the county's public works director, to replace Watson. But Hiskey told reporters Friday he was not interested.

Gardiner supporters hope he can gather support from residents of the county's southern end - people who tend to vote Republican.

Hancock, a trainer and organizational development specialist for the county, was laid off by county administrators during budget cutbacks early in 1987. She claimed she was a victim of sexual discrimination, and Commission Chairman Bart Barker rehired her after her claims began receiving media attention.