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Jeremy Harmon, Deseret Morning News
Scott Matheson Jr. addresses Democratic delegates. He told them that "it's our turn and it's our time."

Utah Democrats were able to avoid a primary election in two major races at their state convention on Saturday, but the party's largest-ever gathering did not end without controversy.

About 50 people silently protested Rep. Jim Matheson's support of a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage by standing with their backs to the two-term 2nd District congressman as he spoke.

More than 1,300 delegates assembled at the Salt Palace, casting ballots to nominate former Utah attorney general Paul Van Dam as the Democratic candidate to challenge Republican Sen. Bob Bennett. Logan City Councilman Steve Thompson was nominated for another GOP-held spot in Congress, Rob Bishop's 1st District seat.

Unopposed Democrats in other races, including Matheson's brother, gubernatorial candidate Scott Matheson Jr., and 3rd District congressional candidate Beau Babka, were placed on the party's ticket by acclamation.

"It's our turn and it's our time," Scott Matheson Jr. told a cheering crowd. "We've been out in the political desert for two decades. Finally, we see water on the horizon."

But he warned there's a tough campaign ahead. "It's not going to be easy, but it is within our grasp." Scott Matheson Jr. will face either industrialist Jon Huntsman Jr. or state Board of Regents chairman Nolan Karras, who were nominated Saturday by Utah Republican Party delegates and face a June primary election.

Van Dam received 97 percent of the votes cast in the Senate race while his opponent, Cody Judy, who served prison time for threatening a leader of the LDS Church, earned only 38 votes.

"Relieved" was how Van Dam described his reaction to the results. "We've been working towards this for months." He said he's ready to challenge Bennett to debate him in "as many (debates) as he's willing to do." Judy said he couldn't "think of a better guy to lose to."

Thompson said he was surprised to come out of the convention with 63 percent of the vote, compared to 37 percent for Brian Watkins, a Salt Lake community council leader.

Thompson, owner of a custom-merchandise company, said he may have gotten a boost from supplementing his speech with a mock funeral service for the one-party system and a Dixieland-style band. Watkins said his age, 29, might have hurt him.

Also decided Saturday was the Democratic nominee for the legislative seat vacated by retiring Rep. Scott Daniels, D-Salt Lake. Ross Romero beat Chris Ferguson, 79 percent to 21 percent. The district includes part of Salt Lake's east bench area and the Snyderville Basin and Summit Park areas of Summit County.

Many of the convention delegates wore the same large blue "Don't Amend" stickers displayed by the protesters. Even state party chairman Donald Dunn sported one of the stickers on his lapel.

However, Dunn urged delegates at the beginning of the day not to "allow this to be become a wedge issue between us" even as he called discrimination written into the Constitution wrong. Later, he told a reporter the protesters represented "a little tiny blip" of the delegates.

Jim Matheson said dissent among Democrats is nothing new. "We have a difference of opinion on the issue," he said. "I represent 750,000 people. Ultimately, they've got to look at the whole basket of issues."

The state's only Democratic member of Congress announced earlier this year that he would back President Bush's call for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Matheson said he has long held that view.

During his speech, he emphasized his opposition to resuming nuclear testing in Nevada. The Matheson brothers' father, former Utah Gov. Scott Matheson, died of cancer that the family believes resulted from living downwind of tests that occurred in the 1950s.

"We all know the government lied," Jim Matheson said. His voice broke with emotion as he said he had been personally touched by the effects of nuclear testing. "This is an issue on which we have to place our utmost effort. We can't go down that path again."

Even those who protested Jim Matheson's position on gay marriage said they still want him to win re-election. "Will it change my vote? No. I'm still going to vote for the guy," said Christy Gleave, a leader of the group that organized the protest, the Stonewall Democrats.

Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson said he'll continue to support Matheson, too, even though he disagrees with his position on gay marriage. The mayor was late getting to the convention but said had he been there when Matheson spoke, he would have participated in the protest.

"There are a lot of people who feel (Matheson's) turned his back on them and on some of the most fundamental human rights," Anderson said. "He has to expect they'll show their dissatisfaction."

A couple from Logan, however, were upset over the incident.

"I thought it was really a very offensive thing," Irene Eastmond said. "It's really hard to be a member of the Democratic party and everybody in the state thinks you are aligned with these people wanting gay marriage."

Her husband, Nick, said most Utahns would agree with Matheson's stand. The protest, he said, "can't help the party. . . . When you've got one incumbent and he's the only one with a strong chance of winning, you wonder, what are these people thinking?"

Delegates did agree to add a statement in the party's platform opposing efforts to amend the state or federal constitution "to restrict civil liberties or to limit states' rights," because constitutions are intended to "grant freedoms, preserve liberties and limit government."

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