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UTAH CONTRADICTS ITS IMAGE AND ITSELF

Consider Utah, the state one travel writer describes as the West's friendly but most alien domain.

Utah is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Osmond family, a stronghold of conservatism and the spawning ground for the kind of crime that makes for best-sellers.It craves the glamour of hosting the Olympic Games while harboring thousands living the 19th-century Mormon principle of polygamy.

It's home to the 1990 Heisman trophy, WordPerfect, aerospace giants Hercules and Thiokol - and rural hamlets steeped in the religious work ethic that coaxes crops from the arid soil.

Utah, a natural beauty with a self-esteem problem. A pretty, great state with a pretty big chip on its shoulder.

"Utahns are our own worst enemies," says Mike Korologos, an advertising executive and former newspaperman whose free-lance articles about Utah appear regularly in airline magazines.

"We bad-mouth the state when we're out of town. We don't have any pride in it," he said. "We do a heck of a lot of great things. But for some reason, we have this image of ourselves that we're not successful, and that permeates outside our borders."

It was just that kind of self-effacement that in 1988 prompted the Utah Economic Development Corp. to come up with a new slogan that, well, epitomized the attitude.

"Utah: A Pretty, Great State" bombed.

"That was the stupidest thing I've ever heard of," said Mari Lou Wood, executive director of the Travel and Tourism Research Center, a Utah-based information and marketing service for clients around the world.

"If we are to be accused of anything, it's that we're not sophisticated," she said. "But our charm is that things are still done at a slower pace."

Yet for all its contradictions, Utah is not without its champions.

San Franciscan Dave Mahoney, a frequent visitor who writes up Utah's attractions for Sunset Magazine, said Utah "seems like kind of an alien environment right in the middle of our territory, but friendly."

And Mahoney can't say enough about the state's five national parks, serene alpine wilderness and splendid desert vistas.

"What the state was endowed with naturally is unparalleled," he said. "It's one of my favorite places to visit."

At the core of Utah's image is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose proud self-reliance is grounded in the persecution that drove Mormon pioneers to the heart of the Western frontier 144 years ago.

Even today, that rectitude informs Utah's politics, culture and society, Korologos acknowledged.

"The church is great for this place, but the church contributes to that image," he said. "It's the old image of the Wild West, and pioneers, and stupid liquor laws. How do you counteract that?

If Utah is best-known for its predominant religion, it's also gained some recent notoriety for bizarre crimes.

Double-murderer Gary Gilmore's 1977 execution broke a 11-year moratorium on capital punishment in the United States, and Norman Mailer told the story in the Pulitzer Prize-winning, "The Executioner's Song."

A year later, Manhattan socialite Frances Schreuder coerced her son into killing her miserly father to reap an early inheritance, an episode chronicled in "At Mother's Request" and "The Nutcracker."

And in the late 1980s, no fewer than three books detailed the history of Mark Hofmann, a murderous former Mormon missionary whose forged documents toyed with the very foundations of the faith he had come to despise.

"Somebody in St. Louis, Brooklyn, New Jersey, they will know zip about Utah. Unfortunately, the things they do know are the bad things," Korologos said.

Utah grabbed national headlines again this year with a strict new abortion law aimed at overturning the U.S. Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision legalizing abortion.

The law instantly became a cause celebre among abortion rights activists who vowed to boycott Utah's booming tourism industry and tried to derail the state's ultimately unsuccessful bid for the 1998 Winter Olympics.

Utah's $2 billion travel industry, including its $400 million ski trade, has shown no visible sign of harm so far and the state already has set its sights on the 2002 Winter Games.

But for most of Utah's 1.7 million residents, there's no place like home - warts and all.

"I don't think we need to apologize for the state of Utah," said Wood. "There are things wrong, but good night, there are things wrong with Florida and California, too."