Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Jean Welch Hill listens as Mark Shurtleff speaks during Tuesday's debate at the U.'s Hinckley Institute.

The two top candidates in the Utah attorney general's race traded shots in the first debate of the election season, sparring over a wide range of topics including school vouchers, polygamy, ethics and each other.

"The attorney general's race, I think, is about three things: experience, leadership and vision," incumbent Republican Mark Shurtleff said, opening the Tuesday debate at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

His Democratic challenger, Jean Welch Hill, said she was in the race for education, economy and ethics — immediately pouncing in an attack on Shurtleff's own ethics.

"We need to change the way we approach ethics in this state," she said, pointing out a recent article in the City Weekly tabloid about the attorney general's office awarding a tort litigation contract to a firm that once employed his daughter and contributed to his campaign.

Shurtleff denied allegations that the contract wasn't bid out, saying the firm was the best qualified for the price. He accused Hill of spreading innuendo.

In her opening remarks, Hill announced an ethics reform proposal, including conflict of interest and nepotism laws and a gift ban. Throughout the debate, Hill took the Legislature to task for many laws, prompting Shurtleff to question whether she knew the role of the attorney general.

"A number of Ms. Hill's proposals here are legislative proposals," he said at one point. "Sometimes I wonder if she's running for the Legislature or ought to be."

While debating the voucher issue, Shurtleff accused Hill of going on the attack with misinformation. Hill, an attorney for the state Office of Education, had her special assistant attorney general status stripped by Shurtleff during the hotly controversial voucher fight.

"You can't walk into a court of law, and you'd know this if you'd ever tried a case in a court of law, that you can't walk in with 'I think,' 'I believe,' the innuendo, the suggestions, the City Weekly articles, that doesn't fly in a court of law, and it ought not to fly when you're talking to people about who should be the chief law enforcement officer for the state of Utah," Shurtleff told Hill.

"For nine years, I've prosecuted educator misconduct cases in an administrative hearing setting," Hill countered, noting that Shurtleff has not personally prosecuted a case since he took office.

"Don't play with words, Jean," Shurtleff shot back. "Prosecuting is going into a criminal courtroom and prosecuting criminal laws, not taking away teacher certification in an administrative hearing. That is not prosecution. You cannot get authorization to be considered a prosecutor for that. Let's not mislead folks."

Shurtleff said he makes many of the charging decisions. Hill stood by her courtroom experience.

"Where the rules of evidence don't apply?" Shurtleff quipped.

"Where the rules of evidence do apply — just not all of them," Hill said as some in the audience giggled.

Shurtleff touted his office's successes, including the Amber Alert and Internet crimes crackdowns. The two were in rare agreement opposing local law enforcement officers acting as federal immigration officers.

Shurtleff has a commanding 61-16 percent lead over Hill in the latest Deseret News/KSL-TV poll. After the debate, Hill said she does not pay attention to the polls but focuses on the people she meets knocking on doors.

Libertarian candidate Andy McCullough was handing out fliers outside the debate. He said he was excluded because he didn't rank high enough in the polls.

"I don't think either of them understands civil liberties and the role of the government to protect its citizens," he said, adding, "You can't really get the issues fleshed out unless you get the opportunity to hear everybody."

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