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Mike Terry, Deseret News
Peter Corroon

Copyright 2010, Deseret News

Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon is gaining on Gov. Gary Herbert in the governor's race, a new Deseret News/KSL-TV poll shows.

Corroon, a Democrat, formally announced his candidacy Tuesday and now has the support of 35 percent of Utahns surveyed statewide, compared with 48 percent for the GOP governor.

In a November poll for the newspaper and television station, 32 percent of respondents said they would vote for Corroon if the election were held that day, while 56 percent said they would cast their ballots for Herbert.

The new poll was conducted Jan. 12-13 by Dan Jones & Associates, which has done research for Herbert. A total of 419 Utahns were questioned, and the poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5 percent.

"Obviously, I'm encouraged. I think it's going to be a horse race," Corroon told the Deseret News Thursday. "I don't want to say I'm surprised. I want to say people believe in my message."

The governor's spokeswoman, Angie Welling, downplayed the slight drop in support for Herbert.

"Clearly, the numbers are good news. Any time we have a double-digit lead, that's something to be happy about," she said. "But we also recognize that it's very early."

Matthew Burbank, a University of Utah political-science professor, called it surprising that a sitting Republican governor would fall below 50 percent in the polls, especially without any controversy.

Still, Burbank said, Utahns haven't heard a lot of specifics yet from Corroon. In his announcement speech, Corroon called for education and environmental improvements, but he didn't explain how to pay for them.

Thursday, Corroon said he favors boosting the state's tobacco tax to help pay for critical needs. The governor has proposed a state budget that has no tax increases, despite an estimated $700 million revenue shortfall.

"The cigarette tax is certainly something that discourages smoking and puts some money in the budget," Corroon said, adding he does not support any other state tax increases, at this point.

"I'm not a political ideologue. I'm a practical person. I'll look at the budget closely and protect the services that are critical, like education," the mayor said, noting a strategy he has pursued with the county budget.

This year, Salt Lake County residents saw budget cuts, along with a property tax increase and a new fee for police protection.

Burbank said it's those tax and fee increases — not Corroon's support for a cigarette tax hike — that could hurt his chances of becoming the state's first Democratic governor in 25 years.

"That's really going to be the heart of the campaign," Burbank said. "If Republicans are able to say, 'Look what he did in Salt Lake County, and that's what he's going to do if you elect him,' then he's sunk."

The tobacco tax, Burbank said, isn't viewed by most Utahns as something that will affect them. It's seen "less as a general tax increase than a punishment for smoking," he said. "You could get away with that as part of a platform."

GOP lawmakers are looking at raising as much as $54 million by boosting the cigarette tax from 69.5 cents. It's not clear how much support there is for the proposal, now that Herbert is opposing any tax increases.

Welling said Herbert isn't budging. "A tobacco tax increase is something a lot of people are talking about," she said. "Gov. Herbert is opposed in principle to any tax increase."