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Deseret Morning News graphic

U.S. Rep. Jim Matheson has turned many 2nd Congressional District Republicans into political schizophrenics, a new poll shows.

Matheson, a Democrat in a heavily Republican district, holds an overwhelming 64-23 percent lead over his GOP challenger, state Rep. LaVar Christensen, a new Deseret Morning News/KSL-TV survey finds.

Why can many 2nd District Republicans be said to have politically split personalities? Because they support Matheson and then express their intent to vote for Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, in Hatch's re-election this year.

For example, in the 2nd District alone, Matheson gets 64 percent support while Hatch gets 63 percent support — from the same people.

By contrast, the new survey by pollster Dan Jones & Associates shows that if the election were held today, the incumbent GOP House members in the 1st and 3rd congressional districts hold healthy leads over their Democratic challengers:

First District Rep. Rob Bishop leads Democrat Steve Olsen 57-23 percent. In the 3rd District, Rep. Chris Cannon leads Democrat Christian Burridge 56-24 percent.

The new poll found that Matheson leads Christensen, a Draper conservative, even among those who said they are Republicans. He dominates Christensen among Democrats and those who said they are political independents, Jones found.

Across Utah, Hatch leads his Democratic challenger Pete Ashdown 63-21 percent — just about the same numbers by which Matheson leads Christensen. (Jones is an independent pollster hired by the newspaper and TV station; this year he has also done polling work for Hatch.)

Democratic Party chairman Wayne Holland knows that Matheson's current appeal likely won't hold up through the fall's campaign — as President Bush and other leading Republicans come to town to push for Christensen and other GOP candidates.

But Matheson should still remain strong in his district, says Holland. "Jim is personable and well-liked — I see it not only in Salt Lake County but in Washington and Iron counties also as I travel the state." The 2nd District includes eastern Salt Lake County, a northeastern sliver of Utah County and counties to the east and south.

"We're looking forward to some fun in the fall," said Jeff Hartley, GOP executive director. "Few people know LaVar. Those numbers will shift as they get to know him. Jim plays it up when he votes with the (House) Republicans. He votes with President Bush like 40 percent of the time. But he's still a Democrat, not a Republican, and we're going to point that out."

Still, after ruminating over the numbers for a moment, Hartley admits: "Jim is a likable guy. People just like him."

In fact, step into the 2nd District, and GOP organizers in heavily Republican Utah might think they've stumbled into an alternate universe — things are just cattywampus.

Look at some of the numbers Matheson is putting up against Christensen:

• Matheson leads 49-39 percent among those who said they are Republicans.

• Among "very conservative" voters, Matheson leads 44-41 percent.

• Matheson leads 55-31 percent among members of the LDS Church (most of whom vote Republican).

• Among voters outside of Salt Lake County, mainly in heavily Republican Washington and Iron counties, Matheson leads 60-28 percent.

In a Morning News/KSL-TV poll taken earlier this year, Matheson's job approval rating topped even that of GOP Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., the Democrat getting the highest approval ratings of any Utah politician.

The new survey, taken July 14-20, shows Matheson has come down from that job-approval stratosphere.

Jones found that 75 percent of 2nd District voters approve of the job Matheson is doing in Washington, D.C. He falls just under Huntsman's new job approval rating.

Even so, Matheson's constituents like him better than do Hatch's. Jones found that Utah's senior senator has a 69 percent approval rating across the state — a good number but not as high as Matheson's.

Compared with Utah's lone Democratic congressman, Reps. Bishop in the 1st District and Cannon in the 3rd District, are popularity slackers. Bishop gets a 48 percent approval rating, Cannon a 50 percent approval rating from their constituents.

While Holland credits Matheson's amazing numbers to hard work and a likable personality, Matheson also has a long voting record that may be more Republican than Democrat.

Just this past week, Matheson twice joined about 30 other moderate Democrats in voting for bills reflecting the U.S. House Republicans' "American Values Agenda."

Those Matheson votes included "yeas" for the GOP-backed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriages and a vote to protect the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

"But there are a lot of other votes where he's voting with the Democrats that you don't hear about," Hartley said. "Overall, his votes don't represent his constituents. And we'll show that."

While newspaper letters to the editor often contain missives from self-described liberal Democrats complaining about some Matheson votes, the new poll doesn't indicate any party defections.

Even though the 2nd District race contains Green Party candidate Bob Brister and Libertarian Austin Sherwood Lett, those two candidates are not picking up dissatisfied Democrats.

Jones found that both Brister and Lett got 0 percent support from voters who said they are Democrats. Matheson got 93 percent support from Democrats and 71 percent from political independents, Jones found.