SALT LAKE CITY — Democratic candidate for governor Peter Cooke lashed out at Gov. Gary Herbert for agreeing to only three debates following the candidates' final matchup Thursday.

"What is the governor afraid of?" Cooke asked reporters after taping the debate at KUED. "That's hiding. And I challenge him to any place he wants to have a debate, any time, anywhere."

The retired general said Utahns haven't had enough opportunity to hear his message and "don't think there's a hope or a chance."

"People don't believe in a two-party system," Cooke said. "So how do we get our discussion open?"

Herbert, who is seeking his first full term as governor after being elected two years ago to fill the remainder of former Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s second term, said the choice should be clear to voters.

"I think people understand the differences," Herbert told reporters. "So I don't think there's a lot of uncertainty. I think you see with my opponent that he wants to have some kind of a plan to have a plan."

Cooke said during the debate he would come up with a proposal to move state spending on education from 50th in the nation to 30th in just four years through examining taxes and expenditures.

He bristled when Herbert said that sounded like the Democrat wanted to raise taxes, insisting he was only talking about making education a priority.

After the debate, Cooke acknowledged he doesn't know yet how he'd pay the estimated $2 billion price tag for improving Utah's ranking in school spending and would not until he can "see all the books" as governor.

The governor said repeatedly during the debate that the solution to finding more money to solve the state's problems is economic growth, an area where Utah is doing well by any measure.

Afterward, Herbert said he didn't know "if happy days are here, but we're on the right road going to see Fonzie and the boys," a reference to the TV show that celebrated 1950s-era America.

"We ought to celebrate the good news. It's disconcerting to have people that only pull out the negativity out there. I'm very optimistic about the future of Utah," the governor said. 

Cooke disagreed, saying much of the the state's good economic news is a result of projects such as the City Creek development in downtown Salt Lake City and won't be sustained without an investment in education.

"Business and economic development in this state will grow, but it will not grow without education. We have made a decision as a state not to fund education, and we have to pay that price," he said. "And that's going to be a hard price to pay."

The Democratic challenger also pointed out various issues facing the state, including with the operation of the state's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control, and the Department of Health data breach that compromised the personal information of nearly 800,000 Utahns.

Herbert referred to those issues as "stubbed toes" and said, in an election year, opponents will look for "any little hiccup." He said, though, he was not trying to minimize the potential loss to taxpayers.

"There is a cost of doing business. We have to own up to the mistakes that are being made and correct them and move on," the governor said.

Herbert dismissed Cooke's campaign slogan that the race is a choice between salesmanship and leadership. "I plead guilty," Herbert said, calling himself the state's strongest advocate.

The hourlong debate was the only televised debate between the gubernatorial candidates and is scheduled to be broadcast on the state's public radio and television stations as part of their VoteUtah2012 collaboration.

1 comment on this story

Herbert and Cooke also debated at the annual meeting of the Utah League of Cities and Towns and at the Salt Lake Chamber, where they also sparred over the state of the economy and education funding.

Thursday's debate, however, was the most heated, even though it was not the first time Cooke has expressed frustration during the campaign. He has lagged well behind the governor in polls and in fundraising. 

Last month, Herbert collected more than $1 million at his annual "Governor's Gala" fundraiser, held at the Grand America Hotel, while Cooke sold bowls of chili from his downtown campaign headquarters for $15 the same night.

E-mail: Twitter: dnewspolitics