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AN EYRE-LEAVITT PRIMARY COULD GET UGLY

An interesting dance is going on in the Republican contest for governor.

Both Richard Eyre and Mike Leavitt consider each other their main opposition in the GOP nomination race. And while they're both trying to get supporters to the April 27 mass meetings, they've also begun taking small jabs at each other, in sometimes obtuse ways.Eyre's and Leavitt's disagreements haven't blown into full-fledged war. And they may never do so. But side shots are being fired as each, in one way or another, tries to tell the public and press that the other guy's lacking something.

Several weeks ago, Eyre issued a press release to the Utah Press Association saying Leavitt workers and/or supporters had started a negative "whispering" campaign about him.

The press release wasn't widely distributed. But in it, Eyre said that while he liked Leavitt personally, he didn't like some of his campaigning. "He reminds me of myself 15 years ago when I was a political professional who thought more about strategy and endorsements and billboards than about the issues," Eyre wrote. That's a dig at Leavitt's years of running top-notch GOP campaigns in Utah, his wide-ranging endorsements and recent billboard buys.

Leavitt's campaign denies any such whispering campaign and was ready to fight back. But after a day or so of seeing no great play on Eyre's comments, they let it slide.

But Leavitt clearly takes a direct shot at Eyre in Leavitt's 25-page "action plan" on education.

Eyre supports a voucher system for education - a controversial approach that many mainline educators and administrators don't like. In fact, his dedication to a voucher system is the main reason the Utah Education Association - the largest teacher union in Utah - refused to endorse Eyre's candidacy.

The UEA backed Leavitt, whose education reform package is the state's Strategic Education Plan - a plan the UEA endorses.

In any case, Leavitt includes two pages in his education plan criticizing vouchers. While not mentioning Eyre by name, Leavitt's piece clearly has him in mind. Leavitt even uses the same monetary figure on vouchers that Eyre advocates.

Leavitt has also criticized "other candidates" who may be "philosophers," candidates who may think fine thoughts but who lack the ability to implement them. He's talking about Eyre.

Leavitt pushes himself as a doer, a man who wants to step out of the private sector to serve, who knows business. He stresses his own business acumen - that he's expanded a successful insurance business and sits on the board of directors of Utah Power and its parent company, PacifiCorp.

Feeling some of that criticism hit home, Eyre has a new, small brochure titled: "Businessman Richard Eyre for Governor: Because Utah needs to be run like a business."

In the brochure, Eyre stresses that while he is a writer - he's best known for his Joy School lessons and family life lectures - he has also started a number of successful small businesses and graduated from the Harvard Business School.

Eyre asks the questions: Is Richard Eyre an author or a businessman? Is he an ivory-tower philosopher or a hard-nosed, hands-on manager? Is he a dreamer or a doer? Is he an idea-generator or an idea-implementor?

Needless to say, the answer to each of the brochure's questions is businessman, manager, doer and implementor.

Assuming that Eyre and Leavitt emerge from the state Republican Convention and face each other in a primary, this could become a tough, bitter battle.

It won't likely turn into the character assassination of the 1990 3rd Congressional District, mainly because to date there's no evidence that either Eyre or Leavitt have the same personal financial problems that the two 3rd District GOP candidates used to cut each other up.

And, so far, neither Leavitt nor Eyre are on the party's right wing, with fanatical supporters who are willing to lose a general election to the Democrats rather than let the more moderate Republican succeed - as was the case in the 3rd District race.

But an Eyre-Leavitt primary could still get ugly.

No doubt the Democratic gubernatorial candidates would profit from that and secretly hope it will happen.