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Democrat Paul Van Dam, still trailing slightly in the race for Utah attorney general, is accusing incumbent David Wilkinson of hiding, ignoring the state's legal needs and distorting the truth.

At a news conference Tuesday, Van Dam said Wilkinson has started avoiding public debates for fear he will hurt his election chances. Van Dam also accused Wilkinson of distorting Van Dam's gun control stance and Van Dam's support for liberal policies. The wildlife division has no attorney assigned to its office, Van Dam said, and Wilkinson is doing little to enforce wildlife laws.But Wilkinson, contacted in his office Tuesday, denied the charges. He said he missed one recent debate because he wanted to attend to his wife, who was convalescing after an operation. Van Dam really is a liberal, more so than Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, Wilkinson said, and the state has assigned an attorney to the wildlife division.

With two weeks left in the campaign, both candidates are eager to find the ingredients to pull ahead in what has suddenly become a close race. They are scheduled to meet Wednesday in a debate before the Utah Bar, where the mood may be unfriendly because of Tuesday's accusations.

"I would hope Mr. Wilkinson would begin to check a few facts before he throws things out into the media," Van Dam said at a news conference he called to refute recent Wilkinson radio ads. "In the last three weeks we've pulled even in the polls. I have stuck to the issues. He has started calling me names."

Van Dam objects to ads that portray him as favoring gun control and to statements by Wilkinson that link Van Dam with Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and question his support for the death penalty.

"I own a shotgun, a rifle and a handgun and I use them," Van Dam said. However, he added he does favor imposing a waiting period between the time people purchase guns and receive them. He also opposes the manufacture of plastic guns and bullets that pierce armor.

Van Dam has repeatedly said he favors the death penalty.

Wilkinson recently announced that the powerful National Rifle Association is endorsing his campaign. Van Dam said he never received a questionnaire the NRA sent to all candidates.

"If the NRA is going to take a hard-core position they ought to at least make a phone call to me," Van Dam said.

But Wilkinson, while questioning whether Van Dam really didn't get a questionnaire, said the NRA would have endorsed the same candidate in any case. He also said Van Dam's criticisms of his wildlife record are "blatantly false."

Wilkinson noted he opposed Salt Lake County Sheriff N.D. Hayward recently when the sheriff wanted to limit hunting in much of the canyons east of Salt Lake City.

As for showing up at debates, "I've counted up at least 10 debates and joint appearances we've had," Wilkinson said. "That's five times more than (Republican presidential candidate George) Bush and Dukakis have had. I went to one where he (Van Dam) didn't show and there was one event where I didn't show.

"He (Van Dam) is the one giving all sorts of factual inaccuracies. He just hasn't done his homework."