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Page Johnson
Rep. Jim Matheson speaks to students attending the Barlow Institute in Washington, D.C.

SALT LAKE CITY — The frontrunners for Utah's 2nd Congressional District have been campaigning hard on the issues of the day — the economy, immigration, public lands, the appropriate role of government in the nation's economic recession and tax policy.

But it is a woman — not a particular issue — who has become the most prolific wedge between incumbent Rep. Jim Matheson, D-Utah, and Republican challenger Morgan Philpot, a former Utah state lawmaker.

Philpot says House Speaker Nancy Pelosi needs to go because she supports a liberal agenda that most Americans don't support. Moreover, the residents of the 2nd District deserve a leader who will not support Pelosi as speaker.

"The problem with our congressman is, he's been voting for her as speaker of the House," Philpot said. "They (the speaker) set the general agenda coming out of the House for the party in charge, and Utahns are not favorable to the agenda she's been setting. Yet, our congressman has been voting for her as speaker of the House and supporting many of the issues she's behind."

Matheson, who is seeking a sixth term in the House of Representatives, says his political independence is well-known among his congressional colleagues.

"Twisting my arm for political considerations just doesn't work. Both Democrats and Republicans in Washington are well-aware of that. I'm real proud of that because that's what people want in an elected official," Matheson said.

Matheson and Philpot lead a field of five candidates competing for the 2nd District seat. A recent Deseret News/KSL-TV poll showed 57 percent of voters in the district would re-elect Matheson, while 31 percent supported Philpot. Constitutional candidate Randall Hinton, polled at 1 percent, as did unaffiliated candidate Dave Glissmeyer. Less than 1 percent of the voters polled said they would vote for Wayne Hill, also running as an unaffiliated candidate. The poll had a plus or minus 6.6 margin of error.

Matheson, the lone Democrat in Utah's delegation since he first ran in 2000, is the son of the late Utah Gov. Scott Matheson and the younger brother of Scott Matheson, Jr., who has been nominated as federal appeals court judge by President Barack Obama but he has not yet been confirmed by the Senate. Despite efforts by the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature to weaken Matheson's stranglehold on the 2nd District through redistricting, he continues to win with strong support from unaffiliated voters and drawing about a third of the GOP vote.

Matheson and Philpot are similar in some respects. Matheson, 50, and Philpot, 39, are married fathers to young children. According to candidate questionnaires the candidates answered for KSL-TV, neither supports the health care reform legislation passed by Congress (Matheson voted against it three times). Neither supports amnesty to solve the nation's immigration problem. Both strongly oppose the resumption of nuclear weapons testing.

But they sharply differ on the issue of federal funding for embryonic and adult stem cell research. Philpot is adamantly opposed to embryonic stem cell research. Matheson, meanwhile, has consistently supported federal funding for stem cell research, subject to strict ethical guidelines. "The research should be conducted in an open and transparent environment, with government oversight and accountability," Matheson responded to the questionnaire.

The two also have different views on the use and access to the state's federal lands.

Philpot first sought elected office in 2000. He announced his intention to run for Congress to unseat Rep. Merrill Cook, R-Utah, but later withdrew, filing instead to run for the state Legislature. He ran as a Republican largely over his distaste with the Clinton administration's handling of the designation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Philpot, then a Hinckley Institute intern to the White House Council on Environmental Quality, became aware that the Clinton White House was keeping secrets from Utahns.

Now, Philpot worries about federal policies that discourage responsible development of resources on school trust lands — sections that were deeded to the state by the federal government when Utah was granted statehood.

"When you look at the effects that the federal government can have on our economy by land policy, they can become, perhaps, more determinative of where we go as a state than we do ourselves," Philpot said.

Matheson, however, points to his role in writing the Washington County public lands bill that broke a generational logjam on public land use issues in Utah. "My inclusive stakeholder model produced the first major wilderness designation for Utah's red rock country in a generation and it has been held up as the model to follow for future generations."

With the campaign coming to a close, the two have been scheduled to debate five times, although Philpot's tea party supporters have branded Matheson as "Phantom Jim" claiming he is inaccessible to residents of the sprawling 2nd District.

"We (had) one open debate — in St. George — in the middle of the day. Does that sound accessible to you?"

Matheson, meanwhile, says he meets regularly with constituents and is well-acquainted with their concerns.

"My family lives in Utah and when Congress is in session, I come home every week. I spend a lot of time visiting with a lot of Utahns. I go to workplaces and visit with employees and take their questions. I conduct so many different question-and-answer sessions that are open format that anyone can ask anything they want. I'm very proud of my record. I'll stack my record up against just about anybody for the amount of interaction I have with my constituents."

Name: Jim Matheson — Democrat

Age: 50

Education: Bachelor of arts in government, Harvard University; MBA, University of California-Los Angeles.

Professional experience: Prior to serving in Congress, Matheson worked in the energy industry for 13 years for several local companies.

Political background: Serving fifth term as Utah's representative in the 2nd Congressional District. He is the only Democrat in Utah's congressional delegation. Matheson is co-chairman of Democratic Blue Dog Coalition, which describes itself as an independent voice for fiscal responsibility and accountability.

Family: Matheson's wife, Amy, is a pediatrician. They are the parents of two children.

Name: Morgan Philpot — Republican

Age: 39

Education: Bachelor of arts degrees in anthropology and environmental studies, University of Utah; juris doctor, Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Fla.

Professional experience: In-house legal counsel and government affairs consultant for Reagan Outdoor Advertising.

Political background: Served two terms in the Utah Legislature representing House District 45, which includes Sandy, Midvale and unincorporated Salt Lake County. He was one of the founding members of the House Conservative Caucus. Philpot is past vice chairman of the Utah Republican Party.

Family: Philpot and his wife, Natalie, live in American Fork. They are the parents of five children.

e-mail: marjorie@desnews.com