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Democratic strategists say Rep. Wayne Owens, D-Utah, has a better chance than ever for re-election now that his two Republican opponents must fight in a primary.

One reason: The Sept. 11 primary is so late compared to other states that money from political action committees may dry up by then. These groups usually will not donate until after primaries to ensure bang for their buck by giving only to winners.Another reason: Utah is one of a shrinking number of states with "open primaries," where Democrats and independents can legally vote in the Republican primary for the candidate they see as less of a threat to Owens.

The situation has one of Owens' challengers, Dan Marriott, calling for Utah to move up its primary to May in future years and to ban open primaries.

In other races, national Republicans say the contest to replace retiring Rep. Howard Nielson, R-Utah, is one of the few open-seat races they expect to "slam dunk." And Democrats say they are pleasantly surprised at the tough campaign that Democrat Kenley Brunsdale is running against 1st District Rep. Jim Hansen.

But all see Owens' race in the 2nd District - whose population is 3-to-2 Republican - as among the hottest in the nation. It is seen as one of the 10 most vulnerable seats held by Democrats.

Democrats say privately they danced with glee when Marriott was forced into a primary against Genevieve Atwood when neither received 70 percent of delegate votes in the State Republican Convention. Marriott received 65 percent to Atwood's 35 percent.

"Our impression was that party leadership annointed Marriott as its nominee, then was unable to secure the nomination. That doesn't reflect well on how he'll do in the fall," said Douglas B. Sosnik, political director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

"It's definitely to Wayne Owens' advantage that Republicans have a late primary. They will have less than two months after the primary until the final election," he said adding that money from political action committees often dries up by then.

Owens said, "It does make it more difficult for them to raise money against me. But I've offered to help them get their message out by having a series of six debates with me."

Marriott said he sees four big problems with Utah's primary system: "One, when it's over, we only have 50 days to take on Owens. Two, it's difficult to raise money because PACs by their statutes don't make contributions until after a primary, which slows funds. Three, there is a tendency to have lingering disunity that works to Democrats' favor.

"Four, independents and Democrats cross over for who they perceive to be the weakest candidate. We've had some indication that will happen this cycle. The Republican primary should be the business only of Republicans."

Marriott said he will ask legislators to consider moving to a closed primary system - requiring voters to register by party - and to move primaries up to May and state conventions up to March.

Even with the problems, he predicts a Republican victory in the fall, as does Atwood.

She says having a primary will actually help Republicans by focusing more free media attention on them and giving the winner a boost into the final election. "It will expose Wayne to five months of attacks by us instead of two," she said.

That is close to the official party line from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Its press secretary, Gary Koops, said, "The primary should energize volunteers through the summer. It should be good overall for the party. A little Republican excitement isn't bad."

About the 3rd District race for Nielson's seat, Gary Maloney, director of strategy and research for the NRCC, said, "It is one of maybe five open-seat races that we expect to slam dunk.

"Let's face it, if we lose that race, we might as well shut off the lights here and go home. Many consider that district the most Republican in the nation."

About the 1st District race for Hansen's seat, Sosnick said Democrats originally held little hope that Brunsdale would have much success.

"But that race is now on the screen, where it wasn't before," he said. "Based on the newspaper clips I've seen, Brunsdale has dominated the debate and completely set the agenda. He has the incumbent on the defensive with a good issue-oriented campaign."