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Jeremy Harmon, Deseret Morning News
Supporters cheer Scott Matheson Jr. as he officially announces his candidacy for governor on Saturday.

Scott Matheson Jr. made it official Saturday: He wants to be the second Matheson to be governor of Utah.

At East High School, where he went to school 3 1/2 decades ago, Matheson officially kicked off his gubernatorial bid, jolting his so-far-sleepy Democratic campaign to life before 200 supporters, including prominent Utah Democrats like former Gov. Cal Rampton.

"We enter this election with hope and confidence," he declared. "And so this campaign, our campaign, is about a lot of things. It's about balance, it's about education, it's about jobs, it's about economic development, health care, the environment, family and our quality of life."

Matheson, the son of the late former Gov. Scott Matheson Sr. and the only declared Democrat in the governor's race, has a free ride in the party's state convention where party delegates elect their slate of candidates. He is waiting to see who will come out of the crowded GOP field of nine candidates — a race that so far has seen Republicans snipe at one another rather than at Matheson.

Not since 1984 has a Democrat lived in the governor's mansion, and that was Matheson's father and namesake. Matheson Sr. was one of the state's most popular governors, despite the GOP domination in Utah. He died in 1990 of a rare type of cancer his family believes was caused by fallout from nuclear testing that blew over his southern Utah home.

The fact that the 49-year-old Matheson has never held public office shouldn't be a shortcoming, political experts say.

Matheson is the dean of the University of Utah law school and he is a former U.S. attorney for Utah. And he has the Matheson name.

His brother, U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, who is running for re-election in Utah's 2nd Congressional District, is leading in early polls against his Republican contenders. Scott Matheson's mother, Norma Matheson, is much revered in all political corners.

"I think he's got a chance," said David Magleby, a political scientist and Brigham Young University professor. "I think the Mathesons bring with them a substantial reservoir of appreciation and success."

Scott Matheson Jr.'s political future may well be decided by who wins the Republican nomination. A recent Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV poll showed Matheson easily winning over all Republicans except two: current Gov. Olene Walker and Jon Huntsman Jr., son of industrialist and philanthropist Jon Huntsman Sr.

But that poll of registered voters may not reflect how party delegates will vote. For example, a straw poll at Friday night's Lincoln Day dinner for Davis County Republicans found former House Speaker Nolan Karras leading, followed by businessman Fred Lampropoulos. Huntsman was in fifth place, Walker far back in seventh.

The Matheson camp has to be salivating at the prospect that Walker and Huntsman might not make it out of convention, Walker because she wields the powerful club of incumbency and is a moderate who appeals to Democrats, Huntsman because of the name identification and deep financial pockets of the Huntsman family.

Still, Matheson, who has been virtually quiet until now, can't sit back and do nothing until his Republican challenger is selected at the state convention, Magleby said.

"In order for Matheson to win he has to be opportunistic," he said. "You have to be a reasonable alternative to the Republicans."

Matheson said he intends to appeal to all voters, socially and politically.

"I'm sensing in the voters there's a really strong interest in achieving balance," he told the Deseret Morning News. "My challenge is to reach out to a broader base of voters."

Rampton, who attended Matheson's kick-off, said the Democrat's success could be determined by how big President Bush's re-election coattails are. "If we can hold Bush to 55 percent in Utah, then Scott should get enough votes," he said.

Magleby said Matheson has a chance despite the state's Republican dominance because of the ongoing rift in the Republican Party "and the interesting way Olene Walker exposes it. She's not part of the club; she's her own person."

Magleby believes that Walker, as the most moderate of the Republicans running for governor, is certain to take a lot of hits from conservatives. "I think there is so much pent up ambition on the Republican slate it's hard not to go after her. And that negative will hurt them with Utah voters. Republicans opposing Walker have a challenge."

Education is a key issue for Matheson, whose political mantra is "We can do better."

"I further pledge to you that no one will be a stronger and more passionate advocate for education than I will be," he said, punching his fist in the air.

Matheson also pledges to bring political balance. The Utah Legislature ended its most recent session by passing laws that send political messages, such as banning gay marriages and partial birth abortions.

"We heard a lot this year about the state Legislature trying to send messages, but the message that really counts is the one we're going to send this November when we win this election and bring back common sense to Utah politics and government," he said.

Besides education, Matheson is focused on providing more jobs and a better environment.

"We must build on our strengths in tourism, manufacturing and small business," he said. "And, as we get this economic engine moving again, we must make sure that everyone has a seat on the train."

E-mail: donna@desnews.com