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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Gilbert Gooch, left, a veteran of WWII, shakes hands with Rep. Jim Matheson at the Utah State Veterans Nursing Home in Salt Lake City, Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2012.
When he's facing an electorate that's overwhelmingly Republican, I think he's wise not to identify himself too closely with his own party. —Quin Monson, BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy

SALT LAKE CITY — Don’t bother asking Rep. Jim Matheson, Utah’s only Democrat in Congress, whether he liked President Barack Obama’s speech Thursday night at the Democratic National Convention.

Matheson has always ignored his party’s national conventions, and this year, when he faces what might be his toughest-ever challenge from Republican rising star Mia Love, is no exception.

“I think it’s much more productive to be in Utah with my constituents. That’s what I’ve always valued the most,” Matheson said, calling both the Republican and Democratic conventions “weeklong infomercials.”

Rather than travel to Charlotte, N.C., to hear the president accept his party’s nomination, Matheson has been meeting with voters and taking on his opponent, including at a press conference Thursday.

“Her policies are reckless and dangerous,” Matheson said of the reductions in federal support for local law enforcement agencies that Love proposed in a deficit-reduction plan earlier this year.

Flanked by Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder, a fellow Democrat, Matheson said Love’s plan would eliminate federal grants that help Utah law enforcement agencies pay for everything from bulletproof vests to officer salaries.

Matheson said the federal budget shouldn’t be balanced, he said, “on the backs of public safety officers” and accused Love, the mayor of Saratoga Springs, of cutting the community’s police budget at the same time crime was on the rise.

Love’s campaign countered that public safety spending in Saratoga Springs wasn’t cut — it just wasn’t expanded.

“This is the kind of ‘Washington math’ that has gotten us into our current fiscal mess,” Love spokesman Brian Somers said, condemning Matheson for using “Obama-like scare tactics in defense of program after program in the bloated federal budget.”

Quin Monson, director of Brigham Young University’s Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy, said Matheson is doing what he needs to do to deal with his challenger, who is already attracting national attention.

“The whole battle here is his effort to define her as too extreme, and her effort to paint him as somebody in the heart of the Democratic Party,” Monson said. “Avoiding the convention and staying home to attack her as too extreme is just part of the playbook.”

Monson said Matheson needs to protect his image as a party outsider to be able to continue to attract the votes of the moderate Republicans who have helped keep him in Congress for 12 years.

“When he’s facing an electorate that’s overwhelmingly Republican, I think he’s wise not to identify himself too closely with his own party,” Monson said. “He has effectively branded himself over the years as an independent voice for Utah.”

Matheson, who has represented the 2nd District but is running in the state's new 4th District, said he’s getting a good reception from the voters he’s meeting this week.

“I think they were happy to see me talking with them about the issues of the day as opposed to being back there,” he said. “I’ve spent lots of time making sure I represent my constituents well. That’s who I am and I think people value it.”

He said he didn’t feel any additional pressure this year to avoid the Democratic National Convention. Love, who would be the first black GOP woman in Congress, drew accolades around the country for her speech at last week’s Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla.

“I think her profile is more national,” Matheson said. “I did not detect a big shift on the ground here in Utah.”

He said he's campaigning just as hard as he has in past races. "It's not my first rodeo," Matheson said. "But don't take that for being lackadaisical and not aggressive. I'm very focused."

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Jim Dabakis, who is attending the national convention, declined to be critical of Matheson, the state's top elected Democratic official, for not participating.

“The fact that Jim would rather be in Copperton than in Charlotte is the reason he continues to be Utah’s most popular politician,” Dabakis said. “It reflects exactly our Utah Democratic party values. Utah first, ideological Washington quagmire last!”

Utah GOP Chairman Thomas Wright sees Matheson’s decision to bypass the national convention differently.

“Jim is trying to have it both ways. He claims he is proud to be a Democrat, but spends a lot of time distancing himself from them,” Wright said. “You can’t run from what you are. He’s a Democrat. He might not be proud of it, but it is what it is.”

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