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Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Gov. Gary Herbert, left, speaks during the Decision 2010 Debate with Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon at the University of Utah.

SALT LAKE CITY — This year's special gubernatorial election wasn't supposed to be controversial, especially after GOP Gov. Gary Herbert emerged with no serious intra-party challenge.

Then, the Democrat in this unusual off-year race, Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, began raising increasingly negative questions about whether contributions to the governor's campaign influenced the awarding of state contracts

That tone has likely hurt Corroon. The latest Deseret News/KSL-TV poll found Herbert actually had increased his lead slightly, to 25 points, since Corroon's commercials sharply criticizing the governor started airing.

But University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said Corroon had to do something to attract attention to himself as a Democrat running in GOP-dominated Utah, especially in a year that promises to be big for Republicans nationally.

"The only thing you can do to change the momentum of that race is to raise some serious questions," Burbank said. "If you're really going to run and be competitive, you can't run a campaign that says, 'Gee, my opponent is a nice guy.' "

Of course, Burbank said, candidates who resort to negative campaigning usually lose because they haven't made an effective case for themselves. "Basically, we're just seeing an attack," he said.

Still, Burbank said, Corroon may be trying to establish himself as a tough candidate in this race in anticipation of running stronger in the next gubernatorial election, in just two years.

"It makes more sense, because this is a special election," he said. "You can say let's make a real effort now and see how things work out. If nothing else, we should be positioned for next time."

Herbert is expected to run again in 2012, although some of his fellow Republicans have suggested privately that he may be more vulnerable after this race to a challenge from within the GOP.

A new state constitutional amendment required an election to be held for the remaining two years of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s term instead of waiting until the next regular gubernatorial election in 2012.

That means Herbert, already elected twice as Huntsman's lieutenant governor, is running on a record of just over a year as the state's chief executive. For his Democratic challenger, the race started two years sooner than expected.

When Herbert took over the office in August 2009 after Huntsman resigned to become U.S. ambassador to China, he began raising money to discourage fellow Republicans from getting in the race.

Thanks in large part to a record $1 million in contributions to his first annual Governor's Gala fundraiser last year, Herbert avoided any real competition for his party's nomination.

Utah Democrats, meanwhile, viewed Corroon as their best hope in years after losing every election for governor since Scott Matheson won a second term in 1980.

Corroon, though, was largely unknown off the Wasatch Front. So he, too, had to focus on fundraising to pay for a campaign intended to introduce him to the rest of the state.

Both campaigns predicted early on that the race would be costly but civil, downplaying the possibility of any real friction between Herbert and Corroon.

The campaigns promised a lot of debate and dialogue on the issues in what Corroon's campaign manager, Donald Dunn, said in April would be "a professional, above-the-board, gentlemen's campaign."

And that's how it started. Corroon held a series of news conferences since the beginning of the year, outlining his positions on a range of issues, including ethics and education. Herbert stayed in the news by performing his duties as governor.

But all that changed shortly after Labor Day, the traditional start of the campaign season, when news reports questioned whether contributions to the governor's campaign influenced the award of state contracts, especially the $1.7 billion reconstruction of I-15 through Utah County.

Corroon quickly jumped on the issue and started airing what have been described as some of the most negative campaign ads seen in Utah. Herbert hasn't disputed the facts. But he has vigorously denied the conclusions Corroon has drawn, including that he is part of a "corrupt system" similar to that of disgraced former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

The sometimes bitter back-and-forth between the candidates over the campaign contributions issue has meant less time to talk about other areas of concern for Utahns, such as the economy and education.

Herbert emphasizes his efforts to, in his words, "grow the economy." More jobs, the governor says, means more money for schools since in Utah, income taxes go to fund education.

"A vibrant economy is the tide that raises all boats," Herbert said in response to a Deseret News/KSL-TV question about his top priority for the state. "The best methods to foster job growth are low taxes, limited government spending and a focus on a business-friendly environment to encourage private capital investment."

Corroon also said his top priority is expanding the economy, especially local businesses. But long-term, he said in response to the questionnaire, the education system is a higher priority for him.

Education, the mayor said, "goes hand in hand with our long-term economic goals. We need to have an educated work force that is prepared to enter in Utah's own private sector, rather than going out of state. Dollars invested in education stay in our communities and provide local jobs."

Education has also played a prominent role in the campaign, with the Utah Education Association that represents some 18,000 teachers statewide endorsing both candidates.

Herbert said he helped schools avoid "draconian" budget cuts in the 2010 Legislature, in part by not vetoing a cigarette-tax increase lawmakers insisted was needed to close the budget gap.

Corroon said the state needs a 10-year plan to improve schools. He said his own proposals, which include boosting math and science graduation requirements, don't require a tax increase.

Both Herbert and Corroon agreed Utahns view the troubled economy as their biggest concern.

The governor said the recovery has already begun and that he is "a steady hand at the wheel. Utah families and businesses can count on me to keep their tax burden as light as possible."

The mayor said if he's elected, he "will focus on economic development throughout the entire state" to help families coping with job losses and tough economic times.

Burbank said the final debate between the candidates, a town hall meeting broadcast live on KSL-TV Tuesday night, may have foretold Corroon's fate in the Nov. 2 election.

"Based on the polls, it looks like Gov. Herbert is in a very strong position," Burbank said. "One of the things Mayor Corroon needed to do was to make the argument for why he would be the better candidate."

Corroon probably didn't succeed in switching many votes, Burbank said, since little new ground was covered by either candidate. "Corroon probably needed something more that would catch a little bit more attention and give voters a chance to reconsider this race."

And Corroon also used the debate to once again attack Herbert on the campaign contributions issue, something Burbank said can turn off voters.

"You always want to end your campaign on a fairly positive note," he said. "One of the problems often with campaigns that become very negative is voters being disengaged. They say, 'I don't like either of these candidates.'... That's the risk of a negative campaign."

Gary R. Herbert

Age: 63

Education: Attended BYU

Professional experience: The Kids Connection Day Care; Herbert & Associates Realtors

Political experience: Utah County commissioner, 1990-2004; lieutenant governor, 2005-09; governor 2009 to present

Family: Wife Jeanette, six children, 10 grandchildren

Peter Corroon

Age: 46

Education: Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering with a minor in languages; New York University, New York City, Master of Science degree in real estate development and finance; Golden Gate University School of Law, San Francisco, law degree with certificate of specialization in real estate law

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Professional experience: Engineer, Turner Construction Co., New York; consultant, Arthur Andersen & Co., San Francisco; attorney, Walstad & Babcock, Salt Lake City; project manager, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Washington, D.C.; president, Green Street Partners Inc., Salt Lake City; partner, Gateway Business Properties LLC, Salt Lake City; owner, Red Gate Properties LLC, Salt Lake City

Political experience: Salt Lake County mayor, 2005 to present

Family: Wife Amy, three children

e-mail: lisa@desnews.com