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Beau Babka

PROVO — Chris Cannon versus Beau Babka might be becoming Utah's forgotten congressional race, but a rally Friday sparked a heated exchange days before the election.

Babka held the event on the doorsteps of Cannon's downtown Provo office on behalf of "the victims of Chris Cannon" — and Cannon responded angrily to claims made by Babka in a flier, a press release and during the rally.

A Babka campaign flier hailed it as a "final, massive, press conference" for the Democratic challenger, but only one reporter and one cameraman from a TV news station showed up to see about 20 people protest Cannon, the incumbent Republican seeking a fifth term in the 3rd District.

"It's time for people in the district to stand up and go to war and fire the Cannon," said Bob Portlock, a Republican from West Valley City who said he will vote for Babka.

The tepid media interest on a snowy morning may be an indication that while races for president, Utah's 2nd District and Salt Lake County's mayor remain close, the perception is that Cannon will coast to victory Tuesday. Polls have him winning 60 percent of the vote.

But Democratic challenger Babka believes he can still mount a come-from-behind win.

He attacked Cannon on job exportation, saying several of his supporters at the rally had lost jobs during Cannon's time in Congress.

"This morning's meeting is not about me or my candidacy," he said. "This morning's meeting is for these people, people I have met who are not swayed by political party, whose interest in politics concerns the health and well-being of their families."

Cannon's "brochures definitely fog over what he's done," Babka said in an interview. "His actions don't meet what his message is. That's the way it's been for eight years. We're losing jobs daily to places like India, Pakistan and China."

Babka said Congress should provide incentives to businesses to keep jobs in the United States.

But Babka really got Cannon's dander up when he suggested both in a brochure and his speech that Cannon personally gains from his status in the House of Representatives.

"With every broken campaign promise and every lost quality Utah job, Chris Cannon's political agenda has taken a sharp turn from his constituents and has focused on aiding big business and his own profit margins," the press release said.

"These are very serious charges that are not only untrue but scurrilous," Cannon said. "To suggest that somehow I'm profiting off this is offensive and wrong. You guys have reported my wealth has declined since I became a congressman," referring to government records that show he has lost millions of dollars since the 1996 election.

Portlock represented the Senior Coalition at the rally and derided Cannon for wanting to privatize Social Security and accepting $10,000 in campaign contributions from Pfizer, a drug company.

Former Geneva Steel worker Kelly Hansen said Cannon failed Utah's steelworkers both when he co-owned the plant and after he joined Congress.

"I know Beau will stand up for us," said Hansen, who was out of work for nine months when Geneva Steel finally closed its doors for good, then got a job working for the United Steelworkers of America. "Beau will be great for us to protect our jobs."

Cannon bristled at the broad assault, blaming Clinton administration policies for hurting Geneva Steel. He also said he helped create the more than 2,000 jobs at the company and left before it went bankrupt.

"I made it through college working as a Teamster," he said. "I was a card-carrying union member. I have differences with unions now, but I'm open about those and I work with unions and get contributions from unions."

Cannon said Pfizer is interested in donating to his campaign because he is chairman of a House committee that deals with asbestos, one of the company's major issues. He openly admitted the drug company likely appreciated his vote against restricting prescription drugs imports from Canada, which he called a complex issue.

He accused Babka, who works as a police officer in South Salt Lake and as an instructor at Salt Lake Community College, of attempting to paint a picture of class warfare between a working class and an elite.

"With all due respect," Cannon said, "I put in more hours than Beau Babka with both his jobs."

The campaigns do not have plans for major events before Tuesday's election, which Babka's Web site calls "Cannon's day of reckoning."

E-mail: twalch@desnews.com