It was an outrageous proposition:

Don't simply regulate tobacco in Utah, Democrat Dave Jones told his colleagues in the House of Representatives. Ban the product entirely."Let's get through the hypocrisy and get to it," the minority party leader said during debate of a bill that requires "face-to-face" sale of tobacco between the clerk and consumer.

He received giggles from his colleagues, a chiding from GOP leadership and a reprimand from House Speaker Mel Brown when the topic came up again later.

A typical, off-the-wall move by a Democrat, pundits wrote.

But afterward, as Jones says has happened several times during this year's session of the Utah Legislature, a conservative member of GOP leadership sidled up to Jones out of sight in the back halls and offered support.

"You're on the right track," he told Jones. "You guys are doing a good job . . . darn it."

"You guys" are the Democrats: 29 strong in a conservative field of 104 members of the Utah House and Senate.

There is a perception that these 29 are the troops in the foxhole, surrounded by a Republican enemy assault, firing off a misguided shot here, an errant round there.

But this perception isn't exactly accurate.

Democratic leaders in both legislative bodies blur party boundaries by reaching out to the GOP, forging alliances and stressing nonpartisanship. This year, House Democrats seemed to make headway into the political stream of a very conservative body.

But the climate among Democrats in Utah's House of Representatives is vastly different from in the Senate.

In the Senate, there is a stark distinction between two camps whose members sometimes are at war as much with other Democrats as with Republicans. There is also a differing sense of how Democrats are doing overall.

"I think we have to define who we are, define what a Democrat is," said Sen. Blaze Wharton, D-Murray, a member of the Legislature for 16 years.

"We've lost our identity. We've lost our soul, and we have no rudder."

Some House Democrats don't feel that way. Jones says they've made a conscious decision not to accept the status quo. Democrats consistently argue issues that affect families' well-being and pocketbooks and - despite an antic or two - make a difference, Jones said.

"We don't necessarily win our battles on the board, but if we can draw attention to the issues . . . "

The personalities of House Democrats have elicited improved credibility, respect and likability:

- Rep. Patrice Arent, D-South Cottonwood, a lawyer and former legislative staffer, is a great resource.

- New Minority Whip Steve Barth, D-Salt Lake, is an amicable representative who has gained political stature during his short leadership tenure this session.

- Former psychologist Judy Ann Buffmire, D-Millcreek, is well-respected and well-liked.

- Rep. Perry Buckner, D-West Jordan, and Rep. Gary Cox, D-Kearns, both law enforcers, bring a streetwise credibility to the group.

- Reps. Brad King, D-Price; Trish Beck, D-Sandy; and Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, all receive kudos from their Republican counterparts for brains and commitment to issues.

There are 20 Democrats in the House of Representatives, nine in the Senate - not enough to garner any real procedural power.

When Jones came to the House in 1989, it was a different climate. There were 31 Democratic representatives then, and GOP leadership had to consider a block that made up one-third of the House.

"We had joint negotiations . . . we had to be considered, and better policy was the result," Jones said.

Like any small group of combatants surrounded by unfriendlies, Democrats tend to stick together.

That is particularly evident in the Senate where there are 20 Republicans and just nine members of the loyal opposition. If a bill passes or fails on a 16-8 or 17-9 count, it's not unusual to find only Democrats on the losing side.

When Senate Democrats do vote together, the effort is uncoordinated. Senate Democrats have taken few caucus positions this year, and caucus meetings - a staple for Senate Republicans - are sporadic and sparsely attended.

Senate Democrats, in reality, are a diverse group of individuals with at least two distinct factions.

Sen. Scott Howell, D-Granite, is in his sixth year as the minority party's Senate leader, but has not enjoyed overwhelming support, and his future at the helm is uncertain. If one or two more Democrats are voted into the Senate this fall, Howell's tenure could be seriously challenged.

Howell and his colleagues in leadership - Minority Whip George Mantes, D-Tooele; Assistant Whip Joe Hull, D Hooper; and Caucus Chairman Robert Steiner, D-Salt Lake, - form one distinctive wing, with Hull as the oft-used bridge to the other side.

Four others - Eddie Mayne, D-West Valley City; Blaze Wharton, D-Murray; Mike Dmitrich, D-Price, and more recently, Pete Suazo, D-Salt Lake, - have banded together in battle, both on the floor against Republicans and off the floor in debates within their own party.

For that reputation, the feisty four have been affectionately dubbed by their colleagues as "the penalty box," a reference to the sport of hockey. The penalty box is where all fighters eventually end up. And Mayne, the primary instigator, is like most hockey players - he enjoys a good punch in the teeth.

"If I haven't had five arguments by the time I get home, then I pick one with my old golden retriever," Mayne quipped, then turned to the issue of party unity.

"Have we had problems? Have we had arguments? Sure we have, but that's just Democrats."

Perhaps Mayne would elaborate and create a full definition for his political party.

For those in the penalty box, a Utah Democrat is still a champion of traditional party causes: education, labor, housing, equal rights, survival of the working class - values with roots in the national party's social platform of the 1960s.

"We've traditionally stood up for people who don't have a voice up here," said Mayne, state leader of the AFL-CIO.

But others seem to view the party as a less conservative wing of the GOP.

And some differences are unrelated to party politics.

One noteworthy tiff between the two Senate camps came mid-session when Wharton, a professional lobbyist, was accused of having ties with Laidlaw Environmental Services, a company that sought - but failed to get - legislative approval to store low-level radioactive waste in Mantes' district.

Right or wrong, this kind of tiff sullies the whole party's reputation, Jones said.

"Sure it does. Anytime there's a family squabble it casts a pall over the entire family," Jones said. "Those of us in the House tried to stay clear of it."

Some Senate Democrats want more connection with House Democrats while others prefer to keep their distance. Howell says he is in regular contact with Jones.

Howell and Jones have teamed up to lead the Democratic assault on GOP road-funding plans and the cry for local-government relief from I-15 reconstruction impacts.

Howell is technically the most powerful Democrat in Utah, but he misses a vote here and there, and often rushes into Senate chambers at the last minute, suggesting to some that he is uninterested or inattentive.

When unsure, he will watch how Steiner votes and go along with him.

Comfortable in jeans, cowboy boots and a bolo tie both on and off the Senate floor, Howell is the consummate showman. He is affable and media-friendly, and lets most criticism, no matter how unfounded, roll off his back.

But he bristles at the suggestion that he doesn't study proposed laws or is in any way out of step with the lawmaking process.

"There's very little that goes on that I don't know about," Howell said.