Until the afternoon of May 20, Riverton Mayor Dale F. Gardiner had expected to serve out his term and turn his full attention to his law practice.

No more campaigns for Congress against Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah. No more campaigns for Riverton's top elected post. All he seemed to want out of life was a career as a trial lawyer and a chance to play softball now and then.Then the phone rang. On the other end was Randy Horiuchi, the state's Democratic Party chairman. Would Gardiner be willing to run for Salt Lake County Commission in place of

incumbent Dave Watson?

Watson had dropped out after an embarrassing arrest on suspicion of drunken driving and possession of cocaine. The party's first choice as a replacement, County Public Works Director John Hiskey, had declined.

"When it comes to crunch time, when the Democratic Party calls at 4 p.m. and says, `Will you help out?' . . . you've got to decide if you will sit on the sidelines or help," Gardiner said, recalling his feelings that afternoon.

He told Horiuchi no and hung up.

But the party chairman was persistent. He called back, and several hours later Gardiner stood smiling in the Cottonwood High School auditorium after having accepted the nomination.

Gardiner, a 38-year-old with a large build and red hair that always seems slightly tousled, is known by friends for a sense of humor that helped him through a disastrous campaign for Congress in 1986.

Gardiner had trouble getting anyone's attention during that race. Only one reporter showed up for his final news conference, during which he announced he would spend the rest of the campaign fishing and invited people to join him if they wanted to talk about issues.

He lost the election badly. Other than his two successful campaigns for mayor, it was the only race he had waged. Oh yes, there was one more. "I ran for school crossing guard in the fifth grade . . . and lost," he deadpanned.

Critics say he fared poorly in 1986 partly because his campaign was disorganized. He tried to stage a "press breakfast" one morning at a local restaurant. Somehow, his staff had invited reporters to be there at 8:30 a.m., told Gardiner to be there at 9 a.m. and made reservations with the restaurant for 9:30 a.m.

He is not known as a slick campaigner. If not for a friendly suggestion from Sandy Mayor Steve Newton, Gardiner would have run for mayor in 1985 using signs that said, "Re-elect Our Mayor."

Newton suggested Gardiner put his name in the billboards so people would recognize their mayor when it came time to mark a ballot.

But despite his jokes and his lack of success in larger races, Gardiner is no goon. Fellow Democrats describe him as articulate and able to grasp issues quickly. A native Utahn who lived in Bluffdale since the fourth grade, Gardiner was part of the first-ever graduating class from Brigham Young University's law school in 1976.

He has plenty of issues he wants to raise in his race for the commission against Republican M. Tom Shimizu, who spent five years as a commissioner before also running unsuccessfully for Congress.

Gardiner feels the commission needs leadership, someone who isn't always a "team player," as he describes Shimizu. Without a Democrat on the commission, county government will sputter with a lack of priorities and without much debate, he said.

No one in the county was asking questions when plans were drawn for the newly completed government center complex, he said.

"It's amazing someone wasn't asking, `Do we really need $900 chairs and the fancy tables and trim?' " he said.

Gardiner said county leaders need to set clear priorities in light of shrinking budgets.

"It's been a long time since the commission sat down and said, `Why are we in business?' "

Gardiner, who believes he has the support to wage a serious campaign, said he needs between $50,000 and $100,000 for a successful race.