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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
4th Congressional District candidates Rep. Jim Matheson and Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love participate in their second debate on KSL 5 News in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012.
It will probably split right down the middle. Some of them will go with the issues, and some of them will go with partisanship. It kind of depends on which voices are loudest in their heads on any given day because I think both of those are powerful messages to these voters. —Quin Monson, director BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy

SALT LAKE CITY — Rep. Jim Matheson and Saratoga Springs Mayor Mia Love have spent as much time trying to define each other as they have defining themselves in the bitter 4th Congressional District race.

He says she's a right-wing extremist who wants to cut programs for special needs children and old people. She says he's a liberal Obama follower who says one thing in Utah and does another in Washington. She would raise taxes. He won't cut spending. She's distorting this, he's distorting that. And so it goes.

Both candidates have saturated the airwaves with commercials that make the other look sinister. They and their supporters have poured millions of dollars into one of the nastiest and most expensive ad wars in recent memory.

The Matheson-Love matchup has drawn unprecedented national and even international attention for a Utah congressional seat, largely due to its potential for a historic moment in U.S. history.

"If you step back from Utah and look at it nationally, if Mia Love is elected, she's the first black woman to a be a member of the Republican Party in the U.S. House of Representatives ever. The majority of people in the world are people of color so this is newsworthy, this is the unusual," said University of Utah political scientist Tim Chambless.

This past week, journalists from Poland, Switzerland and England interviewed Chambless about the significance of the race. He has also fielded calls from Al-Jazeera English and the London Times, as well as most major American news outlets.

Love has emerged as the six-term Democratic congressman's most formidable challenger yet. Her campaign is well-financed, and she has effectively put herself in the spotlight.

But where the race stands is anyone's guess. Public opinion polls are all over the map.

Love's internal poll has her up 51 percent to 36 percent. Matheson has a 48-41 lead in a survey conducted by a PAC supporting him. BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Politics shows a dead heat, with both candidates getting 43 percent.

A Deseret News/KSL poll in late September had Love up 6 points.

Most observers agree that Nov. 6 will be a long night for those waiting on election results in the 4th District.

The race is shaping up to be a battle over wavering Republican voters as to whether they'll split their tickets for Matheson, said Quin Monson, director BYU's Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy. And that, he said, speaks to the strategy each candidate has recently employed.

"Mia Love seems to be reminding voters she is a Republican and endorsed by Republicans that are extremely well-liked at the moment, and Matheson is trying to avoid partisan labels because his doesn't fit and instead is turning to issues that are important to those sort of moderate voters," Monson said.

"He's on the defensive constantly about the fact that he's a Democrat, and she's on the defensive about his attacks of her issue positions being too extreme," he said.

Monson said the election could turn on which message gets through to that group of voters.

"It will probably split right down the middle. Some of them will go with the issues, and some of them will go with partisanship. It kind of depends on which voices are loudest in their heads on any given day because I think both of those are powerful messages to these voters," he said.

Chambless said he has found over the years that adults vote the same way they did in eighth-grade elections.

"They vote ultimately for who they like, who they identify with," Chambless said.

Love's personal story is well-known by now. She is the daughter of Haitian immigrants who she says came to the United States with $10 in their pocket. Her father scrubbed toilets and her mother worked as a housekeeper to support three children.

On her first day of college at the University of Hartford, she said her father told her she would not be a burden on society but would give back.

Love, 36, moved to Utah about 15 years ago to stay with a friend for six months and started dating Jason Love, a recently returned Mormon missionary she knew in Connecticut. She joined the LDS Church just before they were married. They now have two girls and a boy.

In 2003, she won a seat on the Saratoga Springs City Council and was elected mayor in 2009.

Matheson, 52, is a sixth-generation Utahn. His father, Scott M. Matheson, served three terms as governor and was the last Democrat to hold that office in the state.

Matheson studied government at Harvard and earned his master's degree in business from UCLA. He met his wife, Amy, in college. They have two sons.

His professional career began in the energy industry, where he worked for several years developing privately owned power plants.

He moved his family back to Utah and 2000 was elected to Congress in the 2nd Congressional District. Matheson has held the seat for six terms.

He jumped to the state's new 4th District after the Utah Legislature redrew congressional boundaries last fall. He still lives in the 2nd District boundary.

Matheson had some close races over the years, but Love is pushing him harder than any of his past opponents.

"His voting pattern does not represent the Utah I know," Love said, adding that Matheson sides with President Barack Obama 75 percent of the time.

"Utah deserves a leader who trusts the people and will tell them the hard truth about where we are and what we need to do in order to preserve our future. We need a leader who is prepared to engage in dialogue about realities, priorities and solving America’s problems," she said.

Matheson says he's an independent voice who looks at issues on their merits and then does what's right for Utah. Love, he said, puts her party first.

"I practice the politics that I was raised on by my mom and dad: Be honest, listen to all points of view and take a thoughtful, common sense approach to offer constructive solutions," he said, adding he's proud of his record as one of the most bipartisan members of Congress.

Jim Matheson

Age: 52

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Occupation: Congressman

Education: Harvard, bachelor's degree; UCLA, MBA

Political experience: 12 years in U.S. House of Representatives

Family: Wife, Amy; two children

Residence: Salt Lake City

Website: www.mathesonforcongress.com

Mia Love

Age: 36

Occupation: mother, fitness instructor

Education: University of Hartford, bachelor's degree in fine arts

Political experience: Saratoga Springs City Council, six years; mayor, three years

Family: Husband, Jason; three children

Residence: Saratoga Springs

Website: www.love4utah.com

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy