SALT LAKE CITY — Gov. Gary Herbert and fellow Republican challenger Jonathan Johnson sparred over whether the state should sue the federal government for control of public lands and other issues Monday in their first debate.
It's also expected to be the last time Herbert, seeking his second full term after assuming office in 2009, will square off against Johnson, chairman of Overstock.com, before the GOP state convention on April 23.
Both candidates used the hourlong debate sponsored by the Utah Federation of Republican Women and broadcast live by KSL Newsradio to appeal to Republican Party delegates who will be voting in the convention.
If Herbert wins the support of more than 60 percent of the delegates at the convention, he will be the party's nominee. Otherwise, there will be a Republican primary election in June.
Herbert and Johnson tackled a wide range of questions, but their most heated exchange occurred over the question of what the state should do about public lands under federal control.
"It’s time that the state brings a lawsuit to transfer land back to the state," Johnson told a Little America Hotel audience largely made up of Republicans. "I’m ready to bring that suit quickly when I am the governor."
But Herbert warned a lawsuit was risky with a Democrat in the White House and said Utah was better off supporting the public lands initiative being advanced by the state's congressional delegation.
"This is not a slam dunk," the governor said, calling it "counterproductive and probably reckless" to take the federal government to court because of the potential President Barack Obama could set aside more Utah land for a national monument.
Before he leaves office, Obama has been asked by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition to designate a new 1.9 million-acre national monument in San Juan County to protect Native American artifacts.
"All of the good work we've done for the past few years with our congressional delegation would be thrown out the window. We will have a national monument designation by next Friday if we file that litigation today," Herbert said.
Johnson, who called his approach "aggressive" rather than risky said the Legislature has provided funding for a lawsuit and this "is an issue that is crucial to Utah now," especially to rural parts of the state.
After the debate, Herbert said he does not have a committment from the Obama administration not to go forward with a new national monument designation if the state holds off on a lawsuit but "they are willing to listen."
Johnson, though, told reporters after the debate he believes Obama "is going to give us a monument one way or another," a situation he said might be different if the state had already taken the federal government to court.
Count My Vote
Another sharp exchange was over the legislative compromise with Count My Vote, a citizens initiative that would have replaced the caucus and convention nominating system with a direct primary.
The Utah Republican Party has lost several court battles already over the compromise known as SB54, which allows candidates to gather voter signatures, compete in the traditional party system, or both to win a place on the ballot.
Johnson called for Herbert to withdraw the signatures he has already gathered to guarantee a place on the primary ballot and compete for the party's nomination only at the state GOP convention later this month.
The governor said "the hypocrisy of my opponent on this issue is startling," and cited Johnson's initial intention to gather signatures, too. "Changing your mind for some political whim is probably not statesmanlike."
Johnson said he decided not to take both routes to the ballot as the governor has after deciding signature gathering means "rural Utah will lose its voice" as candidates "put up slick billboards along the Wasatch Front."
The audience at the debate groaned as Herbert said he and other candidates gathering signatures including Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, "are out there trying to drive people to the caucus."
Any new taxes?
Taxes also caused some friction between the candidates, with Johnson urging Herbert to join him in signing a pledge not to raise taxes. Herbert declined, saying leadership means avoiding committing to "something that blanket."
Monday marked the first time the two candidates debated, although both participated in a recent panel discussion on a Utah Foundation report identifying the key issues for the state's voters. No other debates have been scheduled.
The Sutherland Institute's new president, Boyd Matheson, who served as a debate moderator alongside KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright, said he believed the debate was substantive.
"There were a few little dustups here and there," Matheson said, adding that the debate still "got past the kind of bumper sticker slogan stuff."
GOP state delegate Dalane England, a high school teacher from North Salt Lake, said after watching the debate she still hadn't made up her mind between Herbert and Johnson.
"I'm not through the vetting process. I have not made a decision. I have very, very big concerns with our governor," England said, over the controversial Common Core education standards. "I'm leaning closer toward Jonathan Johnson."
Monday, UtahPolicy.com released a new poll showing Herbert with the support of 58 percent of voters compared to 20 percent for Johnson. The poll, by Dan Jones & Associates, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
In a statement, Johnson said the poll "was bought and paid for by the Herbert campaign" and said it was "disappointing that Utah Policy is publishing a general public poll and not state delegates poll."
Pollster Dan Jones said the governor did not pay for the poll or even know it was being conducted. Jones, who does polling for Herbert, has an ongoing agreement to poll for the online political news source.
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