ST. GEORGE — Polygamy, rising crime rates and a proposed constitutional ban on same-sex marriage were the main topics discussed by Utah attorney general candidates during a televised debate here Wednesday.

Democrat Greg Skordas, Republican incumbent Mark Shurtleff and Libertarian Andrew McCullough squared off in a sparsely attended forum on the campus of Dixie State College.

Polygamy, Skordas said in answer to a moderator's question, is "an embarrassment" to the state.

"It's not so much a crime about religion as it is about crimes against women and children," he said.

"Polygamy is still a crime, a felony, that is proscribed by our state constitution. And it should be enforced as a crime, but it's hard to prove crime without a victim coming forward. That's why we must prosecute it as crimes of abuse; then we'll be successful."

Shurtleff said when he first ran for office four years ago, polygamy wasn't even mentioned during the campaign.

"When a 13-year-old is forced to marry an old man or sleep with her daddy, that's child rape," Shurtleff said. "We're not targeting or focusing on religion. This is about protecting women and children.

"The fact is, out in Hildale and Colorado City, women are treated as chattel and have no rights whatsoever. They are there to have babies. That's all. They're denied an education. Now we're finding out that men and young boys are being victimized. We have to do something to prosecute these crimes."

Four years ago, McCullough campaigned on a theme that a less intrusive government is more humane and helpful to its citizens.

"While there are some abuse problems going on down there (in the twin polygamous towns), I think the practice of polygamy in a religious setting is protected by the Constitution," he said, adding his law firm filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of convicted bigamist Tom Green.

"I don't think you can look at a polygamist community and say crimes against women and children are any more prevalent there than in any other community."

A proposed amendment to the state constitution that would define marriage as between a man and a woman and deny benefits to any other union is not necessary, Skordas said.

"We have a law in Utah right now that precludes same-sex marriage, and it's a good law. Unlike my Republican opponent, I am not afraid of activist judges," he said. "I don't see the need to create this amendment as a constitutional issue. It does not belong in the Utah constitution. Our constitution shouldn't be tampered with because of fears or phobias."

Shurtleff said he opposes the amendment because it would deny fundamental rights and benefits to "an entire class of citizens" and is legally unenforceable.

"This shouldn't even be part of this campaign. We will be in litigation on this amendment immediately if it passes," he said. "If we're going to have to litigate something, I want to win."

McCullough said he didn't understand the reason behind the proposed amendment.

"I kind of wondered why the Legislature feels it necessary to bring it to Utah voters. Maybe they're making judgments on different lifestyles and that some lifestyles are welcome and some are not," he said. "I just don't like it, and I hope those of you with good will in your hearts will vote 'no' on this with me."

Shurtleff said his fight with the University of Utah over its ban of guns on campus was, and is, the right thing to do in spite of the cost to taxpayers.

"The University of Utah was in violation of the law. It doesn't matter how high you build an ivory tower, you have to obey the law," he said. "My job is to enforce the laws, I don't make the laws."

Protecting children from predators, prosecuting those who steal another's identity, Internet crimes, illegal aliens, gangs and drug-related crimes were all discussed during the debate, which was aired on a local television and radio station.

Republican Mark Shurtleff's and Democrat Gerg Skordas' answers to the Deseret Morning News questionaire can be found by clicking the Election 2004 link on our Web site.