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T.J. Kirkpatrick, Deseret News
Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon kicks off his campaign for governor Tuesday as his wife Amy and daughter Sophie, 8, stand nearby on the steps of the Grand Theatre at Salt Lake Community College south city campus in Salt Lake City.

SALT LAKE CITY — Standing before several hundred supporters huddled on the chilly front steps of the Salt Lake Community College's South City campus Tuesday, Democrat Peter Corroon kicked off his campaign for governor.

Corroon, the popular Salt Lake County mayor, is taking on GOP Gov. Gary Herbert in November's special election for the remainder of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s term.

Corroon's plans became public late last week, so the announcement was not a surprise. But there was plenty of enthusiasm from Democratic party leaders, union members, big contributors, officeholders and others gathered to hear from Corroon, despite subfreezing temperatures.

Corroon told the crowd he would take Utah "back to basics on which this state was founded: a small, honest and effective government." He said the state needs to focus on developing renewable energy and improving schools, but he offered no specifics.

Instead, Corroon cited support for Utah's values and pioneering spirit and promised the state will succeed "in the way Utahns have always succeeded: working together, working hard and by our ingenuity."

That's also how Corroon said he intends to win what is expected to be an uphill campaign. Utahns haven't voted in a Democratic governor since the late Scott Matheson was re-elected in 1980.

After his brief speech, Corroon stepped into the audience, shook hands, posed for pictures and chatted with supporters.

The mayor grinned at Bill Hirschi, a representative of the carpenters union. "That you screaming?" Corroon asked.

Hirschi had been trying to lead the crowd in chants of "Peter" throughout the speech.

"Peter is friendly to the working-class man who is trying to pay his bills," Hirschi told a reporter.

Prominent developer Kem Gardner said he's "absolutely" supporting Corroon's candidacy.

"More than anything else in the state, we need a two-party system," Gardner said. "We need a Democratic governor to help with that."

Corroon, who is not well known outside the Salt Lake area, took his message to Ogden and St. George on Tuesday and is scheduled to appear Wednesday morning in Provo.

Corroon was met by a smaller, but nonetheless enthusiastic crowd in St. George.

About 50 southern Utah residents gathered in Ancestor Square on Tuesday night in support of Corroon, who emphasized the potential for alternative energy sources in the St. George area.

Cyril Noble, president of the Washington County Democrats, introduced Corroon and stressed his belief that Corroon is the best candidate for southern Utahns.

"There are many people down here who vote Republican but are really Democrats," Noble said. "They've never had anyone to lean on, to say, 'There's the man to solve your problems.' We believe that (Corroon) is the man that they can vote for."

Mike Small, president of Democrats of Southern Utah, said although the area is traditionally conservative, Corroon has the potential to get a greater portion of the votes than Democrats usually do.

"He may not win in Washington County," Small said, "though I think he could easily get 30 percent of the vote — probably a little more than that."

Herbert's spokeswoman, Angie Welling, did not comment directly on statements Corroon made Tuesday.

"Once the mayor and Gov. Herbert are their parties' nominees for governor, there will be plenty of opportunities to campaign and engage in policy debates," Welling said. "At this time, however, the people of Utah expect Gov. Herbert to concentrate on governing the state during these difficult economic times."

Herbert served as lieutenant governor under Huntsman until the former governor stepped down in August to become U.S. ambassador to China.

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The governor is not expected to formally launch his campaign until after March 11, when the Legislature ends its session. So far, he has no opponents other than Corroon, but the filing deadline is March 19.

Rep. Jim Matheson, the only Democratic member of Utah's congressional delegation, has endorsed Corroon's bid for governor.

"Peter shares my approach of putting Utahns first — before politics or partisanship," Matheson said in a statement.

Democrats had seen Matheson, the son of the late governor, as a strong gubernatorial candidate, but he expressed no interest in the race.

e-mail: lisa@desnews.com. Contributing: Amanda Mitchell