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Even though Rep. Wayne Owens' re-election race is a year away, the political cards may be stacking up against him.

In his past two races, Republicans have tried to paint Owens as a liberal with a capital "L." They've met with little success.Now they'll likely try the latest congressional catchword: ethics.

As you may recall, a year ago then-GOP state chairman Craig Moody filed a formal complaint against Owens with the House ethics committee. The complaint involved Owens' use of a paid lobbyist to write part of the Central Utah Project's funding bill.

The complaint was dismissed just before the 1988 elections on a technicality. No formal hearings were held. And Moody hasn't refiled the complaint in the new Congress. The ethics committee can, on its own, start investigations of members. Moody and others believe the committee will take the Owens matter up sometime this year.

In any case, the Republican players in Utah may be lining up to ensure the ethics complaint is reheard, one way or another.

First, Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, sits on the ethics committee. While investigations by the committee are secret, and Hansen has truly kept his mouth shut about the investigation of former Speaker Jim Wright and others, Hansen has said that if it weren't for the time spent on Wright's investigation, the committee probably would have gotten around to Owens.

There's a strong hint here that Hansen may be a force in any such investigation.

Second, Moody, a Utah House member from Sandy, is considering running against Owens in 1990. While saying a year ago that it was up to him, as party chairman, to file such an ethics complaint against Owens - and that he didn't like doing it - Moody certainly knows how to use such a political tool.

Finally, Richard Snelgrove, the Republican who ran unsuccessfully against Owens last year, is the leading contender for Moody's party job. If Snelgrove is elected this Saturday as the new Utah Republican chairman, and if Moody decides to run against Owens next year, all the players will be in place for a tough, bitter campaign against Owens: Hansen on the ethics committee, Moody as Owens' Republican challenger and Snelgrove as state party chairman.

Many national Republicans think the ethics problems faced by Wright, who has resigned, and other prominent Democrats in the House will be good political ammunition. Utah GOP leaders would love to see Owens lumped with that crowd.

With the aim of electing more Republicans in 1990, the Republican National Congressional Committee has already sent memos to GOP leaders across the country pointing out Democrats' ethical problems, reports Congressional Quarterly.

As Owens hates to be reminded, polling by Dan Jones & Associates for the Deseret News and KSL-TV consistently shows his 2nd Congressional District is about 40 percent Republican, 33 percent independent and only 22 percent Democratic.

In addition, 1990 brings an odd batch of races in Utah and mixed blessings for Owens.

There's no presidential or senatorial election, so 2nd District voters - who usually favor the Republican in those races - won't have to split their ballot in voting for the Democrat Owens.

But because there are no such contests, and no governor's race, Owens' race comes to the top of the ticket.

He'll get more media coverage in 1990 than he did in 1988, when his race had to compete with all the other political news. Such a spotlight will allow Republicans to harp on Owens - pounding any ethics issue, real or contrived, and driving home the question to Republicans and conservative independents: "Why are you voting for this Democrat?"