State Democrats like what Rep. Mary Carlson has done in House District 31.

Republicans don't.Carlson, a 59-year-old retired social worker, has taken firm hold of a district that rarely voted Democrat or Republican on a consistent basis. She has won three straight elections there and is running for a fourth term this November.

"That seat was definitely a swing district that Mary happened to be lucky enough to take six years ago," said Todd Taylor, executive director of the state Democratic Party. "And you could watch over the next two election cycles as it shifted to support her more and more."

Over the past 10 years, according to Taylor, the district's voters have cast ballots for the Democratic candidate 53.8 percent of the time in closely contested races.

Republicans want to push the swing back in their direction, and think they can do it with a longtime area resident who has a highly visible role as spokesman for the Utah Department of Public Safety - Verdi White II.

GOP leaders say Carlson is one of the most liberal Democrats in state government and doesn't represent the average district resident.

Carlson and White agree voters in the Sugar House and Highland Park areas are among the most independent free-thinkers found anywhere in the state - a collection of individuals who rarely vote straight party tickets.

A voter who delicately weighs the pros and cons of each candidate presumably can't support someone about whom little is known. The struggle for control of the district, then, could come down to which candidate knocks on the most doors and gets more of their political message out to the public.

"Verdi is out walking the district," Spencer Stokes, state Republican Party executive director, said of the first-time candidate. "He knows this is a seat he's going to have to work hard to get."

The wild card in the race is White's name recognition. Not only is he a fixture in local media as the state troopers' talking head, but he has lived in the district for 40 years and has an extended family with area roots that date back to 1867. If the election is close, the 48-year-old White could conceivably win by the margin of his own family members.

Carlson, Democratic leaders and even White himself aren't so sure if the visibility associated with his profession will translate into votes.

"That's his job and we do have a citizen legislature and people do their job," Carlson said. "I don't remember, myself, having the name mean anything to me and I read the papers. It's not like he's on the news every day."

The GOP is promoting White as a friendly neighbor - a hard working, sensible guy who lives down the street.

"I feel most of the people who live in the district are a lot like I am," White said. "I think I represent the average, working person who has more moderate views politically."

Stokes predicts a GOP victory. That comes as no surprise to Carlson, who said her last challenger, Greg Hopkins, had a larger campaign budget than she did two years ago.

"They always target this district. They believe they have hereditary rights to this district," Carlson said, adding that she welcomes the competition.

"I think every race should be a targeted race. I think the biggest problem we have is that we have too many safe seats."

If the GOP doesn't get Carlson this time around, it may have a better shot at the district two years from now. Carlson hints that if re-elected this fall, her fourth term could be her last.

"One of my goals was to see through the work of the Health Policy Commission and that was over an eight-year period during the term of Gov. (Mike) Leavitt. I'd like to see that through," she said. "I think everybody needs to know when the exit line comes up. At my age, I have no ambition for higher office. This is it. But every time I run, I always have to make that decision."

White and the Republican Party hope to give Carlson a premature exit from state politics in November.

District 31 runs from Foothill Drive down to about 900 East, from Westminster Avenue to about 3100 South.

Two other candidates are challenging for the seat - Independent Party member Betty Christensen and Libertarian Charles G. Pearce.