The 1998 candidate field is set in Utah, and one vacancy overshadows all others.

The Democrats don't have a candidate in the 3rd Congressional District.Instead of running a "warm body," says state Democratic chairwoman Meg Holbrook, Democrats opted not to file anyone when their leading candidate - officially unnamed by Holbrook - backed out at the last minute.

Who that phantom was - some say it was former Idaho Attorney General Larry Echohawk - is unimportant now.

What is staggering is that Utah's minority party, struggling for years in its attempt to field viable candidates on the state level, should fall short here.

State elections officials say they can't find another U.S. House race in Utah where there wasn't at least one Republican and one Democrat.

The 1998 record-setting vacancy is, and should be, considered an embarrassment for Democrats.

Just two years ago they held the 3rd Congressional District with conservative Democrat Bill Orton, a man who may have won an upset in 1990 but won solid re-election victories in 1992 and 1994.

To go from holding the seat to not even filing a candidate two years later may be precedent-setting across America. And it doesn't speak well of Utah Democratic Party organizers and recruiters.

Yes, Democrats have run some pretty weak candidates for major office in the 1980s and 1990s.

Former U.S. Sen. Jake Garn had only token Democratic opposition one time, the Democratic standard-bearer going on to lose not only to Garn in a landslide but to lose local races as well later on.

The Democratic gubernatorial candidate in 1992 finished third in a three-man race. (Another first for Democrats in Utah.)

And a couple of 3rd Congressional District Democratic candidates didn't do very well against former Rep. Howard Nielson in the 1980s as well.

But not doing well is a lot different than not showing up at all - and the Democratic men and women who fell to powerful GOP incumbents in federal and state races should be complimented for standing up.

The Brigham Young University basketball team may not do very well. But they field a team and play hard.

Hey, you never know what can happen. Orton was considered a sure loser in 1990. But an ugly GOP primary race cut up the Republicans so badly that Orton's let's-be-reasonable campaign caught fire and he was elected.

Salt Lake County Commissioner Randy Horiuchi - then state Democratic Party chairman - couldn't stand the idea of GOP Commissioner Tom Shimizu running basically unopposed. So Horiuchi jumped into the 1992 commission race with only slim hopes of winning. But he nipped the veteran commissioner by 1,000 votes out of 180,000 cast and served eight years in county government.

Yes, Cannon is a millionaire who could put another $1 million into his race this year. Yes, the 3rd District is overwhelmingly Republican by nature.

But you get in the race. You make some noise. And when you get your national chance - as former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Pat Shea did in a nationally televised debate with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in 1994 - you take your best shot.

You may not win, but the democratic process is served. Maybe well served.

As former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Bradley told the Deseret News late last year - when the rumor was Democrats wouldn't find a candidate to run against Sen. Bob Bennett this year (they did, he's Scott Leckman): "There are enough wannabee Democratic politicians in this state that you have to find someone; someone should step up."

But no one did last Tuesday night, as Holbrook sat in the state elections office waiting to see if some Democrat would walk in and file for the 3rd District.

The Democratic Party is less because of it. The voters in the 3rd District are less because of it.

Yes, we need a two-party system in Utah. But that means we need Democratic candidates to step up and offer themselves and their ideas.

And while the vacancy may not mean much in votes for other Democratic candidates come Nov. 3 - may not result in any real downside at the polls - it is a black mark for Democrats in general in Utah.

That's not something they need as they strive to convince Utahns that Democrats deserve the right this year to governor in the Legislature, in county commissions and next year in mayorships and city councils across the state.